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While 13 official candidates sweated over 50-second answers in the Conservative leadership campaign's French-language debate, the whisper among campaign teams in Quebec City was that TV personality Kevin O'Leary is about to announce his leadership bid.

It's hard to imagine that Mr. O'Leary could send a clearer signal to francophones: skipping the debate in French but jumping in the race just afterward. After Tuesday night's debate in Quebec City, the Conservatives really do face a question about the message they'll send to Quebeckers.

The number of candidates who both have a shot at winning the leadership and can really speak French is small, perhaps three. And the early headline-grabbers, Mr. O'Leary and Kellie Leitch, aren't among them. Are Conservatives willing to blow off Quebec for Mr. Wonderful?

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In truth, the Quebec City debate that Mr. O'Leary skipped wasn't so tough. With 13 candidates, each giving 50-second answers and having few chances to interject, embarrassment could mostly be avoided with scripted responses. It only showed up those with a real tin ear in French.

Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai, even reading from notes, didn't make the words sound like French. "Moi, pronunciation horrible," he admitted.

And Ms. Leitch, who told the audience she has been taking intensive French courses for a year, seemed to be struggling to fit her mouth around words she read verbatim. When she reached for an attack line against another candidate – pointing out that Maxime Bernier, as industry minister, had paid out $200-million in industrial subsidies – it was usually lost in pronunciation.

Lisa Raitt, the former transport minister, stuck to reading notes, but muddled through without gaffes. Erin O'Toole told the audience to "remember" they're all Conservatives by using the word "memory," but got points across without always reading notes. So did Andrew Scheer, who was able to make a point but sometimes struggled with grammar and occasionally threw in an English word.

The real heat, in fact, was a battle between the two Quebeckers. Lévis MP Steven Blaney repeatedly attacked Mr. Bernier for his free-market plan to abolish the supply-management system that protects dairy farmers – a controversial idea in Quebec.

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And there was bilingualism on show. Former immigration minister Chris Alexander, who lost his seat last year, expressed himself elegantly; B.C. candidates Andrew Saxton and Rick Peterson were imperfect, but usually clear. So was Ontario MP Michael Chong. But the campaigns of Mr. Alexander and Mr. Chong have few signs of momentum, and Mr. Saxton and Mr. Peterson are long shots.

Few of the 13 can be considered both contenders and passably bilingual.

There's Mr. Bernier, who has raised more money than most, and attracted attention with a purist free-market campaign. There's Mr. Scheer, who has the support of more MPs than any other candidate, and can make a point in French without notes, although he couldn't find words at times Tuesday night. And perhaps Mr. O'Toole, who has the second-biggest list of MP endorsements, and can express himself in French with a little more struggle than Mr. Scheer.

In other words, the shortlist looks short. The question is whether Conservatives will ignore it. There has been a mini-debate about whether Conservatives can choose a unilingual leader, an idea that riles many Quebec Tories. "This debate is embarrassing," Stephen Harper's former press secretary, Carl Vallée, tweeted last week. In Tuesday night's debate, Mr. Bernier emphasized the electoral stakes by arguing that francophones swing 100 of Canada's 338 ridings.

But the two newsmakers of the race so far, Ms. Leitch and Mr. O'Leary, aren't on the shortlist. Ms. Leitch, running on a call for immigrants to be screened for Canadian values, just isn't bilingual. Mr. O'Leary says he'll learn, but already upset many Quebec Tories by explaining French isn't that important – because he speaks the language of jobs, or because many young Quebeckers speak English.

Skipping the French debate will be a symbol now for Mr. O'Leary. Before the debate, Sylvie Boucher, an MP who supports Mr. Scheer, said that's an insult that shows a "lack of respect" to francophones. Mr. O'Toole, put it a different way: "I think he'll have to explain how that's leadership," he said in an interview. The Conservatives will have to answer questions about Quebec in this leadership campaign, and Mr. O'Leary will be near the top of the list.

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