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Are Tory candidates grasping for a poisoned chalice?

When you can't raise money, it's hard to mount a serious bid to lead a political party. Just ask Tony Clement.

Mr. Clement announced on Wednesday that he was shuttering his campaign for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party. Despite being one of the bigger names in the race, the Ontario MP and former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper was having trouble attracting donations. In terms of numbers, it wasn't lemonade-stand bad but close to it.

Who's to say what the problem was: Too milquetoast? Baggage from the Harper era? Nothing to excite the base?

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All of the above?

While Mr. Clement is undoubtedly disappointed, he may, ultimately, be happy that it turned out this way. Being in Opposition is a thankless slog. The thought of being in Opposition for years is even less tantalizing. But let's face it, that's precisely the prospect the next leader of the Conservatives has to consider.

Related: Peter MacKay advises Tory leadership hopefuls not to take 'offensive' tone

Related: Is Jason Kenney yesterday's Conservative?

Opinion: What way will the Conservative Party turn?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not just wildly popular inside his own country, but outside of it as well. The fact he has become something of a worldwide phenomenon speaks to the times we live in as much as it does whatever je ne sais quoi he possesses.

Today, celebrity can take someone a long way, a fact we are witnessing first-hand in the United States. It seems more important than ever for people to be close to it. Selfies make a person's time in the presence of the famous, including politicians, seem more real. Justin Trudeau moves effortlessly in this domain, establishing a formidable bond with a large cross-section of Canadians along the way. And in places where federal Liberals haven't been much welcomed in the past.

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When word went out that Mr. Trudeau was going to be in Medicine Hat, Alta., this week to glad-hand with by-election candidate Stan Sakamoto, 1,300 people registered for the Prime Minister's campaign appearance within 24 hours. The venue has room for 750. If this doesn't make Conservative Party members depressed, nothing will.

There is a cast of thousands vying for the Tory leadership, many of whom few Canadians will have ever heard. (Brad Trost anyone?) According to a recent poll, former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier is the front-runner. Mr. Clement was second. More than half of the respondents – 54 per cent – said they would prefer "someone else" other than the eight names tested by Forum Research.

That has to make the candidates who were on Forum's ballot feel wonderful.

The fact is, it's highly unlikely whoever the Conservatives pick will ever become prime minister. A party that has been in power for an extended period of time can go through many leaders before finding the one who leads them to the Promised Land again. Look at the Liberals. After Jean Chrétien spent 10 years in office, the party went through three leaders before it found someone who could lead them to a majority government again. After Brian Mulroney spent nine years running the country, his party, in various iterations, went through even more leaders before Stephen Harper came along.

There is also the fact that the federal NDP is in disarray and down in the polls. As long as this remains the case, the Conservatives will have an impossible time beating Mr. Trudeau. It's basic math.

And if you can't realistically become prime minister, why would anyone credible even want to lead the Conservatives?

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"Conservatives are at a point where they are still seen as Stephen Harper's party – he was the leader and the centre pole of the tent," former Conservative MP James Moore told me this week. "The party is doing some soul-searching right now in terms of what we are and where we want to go. But we still have our base, it's strong, so it's still a prize worth fighting for."

Maybe. There is certainly a stronger foundation in place than what will be left of the Republican party in the United States after Donald Trump finishes with it. Mr. Trump, in fact, is dragging the conservative brand everywhere through the mud, including in Canada. It is the kind of reflected denigration of right-wing ideologies that the Conservatives here could do without.

And it certainly doesn't help a Conservative leadership race already suffering from a cast of candidates as dreary and lacklustre as there's been.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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