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Politics Andrew Scheer looks strong at start of election year, but trap lies ahead for Tories on immigration and refugees

Ten months before the federal election, Andrew Scheer is in about as good a place as he could reasonably hope to be. The Conservative leader has, however, one crucial decision to make.

Mr. Scheer must decide how hard to press the border issue. Handled well, that issue could drive votes to the Tories. Handled badly, it could cost them the election.

So let’s take stock of the Leader of the Official Opposition, and what might await him in 2019.

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The Conservatives have grounds for cautious optimism. Although polls are contradictory, it’s fair to say that Mr. Scheer and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are within striking distance of each other.

The Tories are well ahead of the Grits in fundraising. And they have a strong message: that Liberals are running up debt with little to show for it; that they spent $4.5-billion on a pipeline that isn’t being built; that they angered Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, while our allies are indifferent to Canadian interests.

If United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney prevails in the Alberta election this spring, five premiers, including Ontario’s Doug Ford, will be waging war with Ottawa over the federally imposed carbon tax, even as environmentalists say Canada’s efforts to fight global warming are falling short.

As political landscapes go, things could be far worse for the Conservatives. And if the stock market is any indication, the U.S. economy could be headed for a downturn, with the Canadian economy bound to follow, which is never good news for the governing party.

Critics who describe Mr. Scheer as a carbon copy of U.S. President Donald Trump or former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper are spouting nonsense. The worst you can say of Mr. Scheer is that he is bland and ill-defined. But the next election will be a referendum on Justin Trudeau. If the public turns on the Prime Minister, all Mr. Scheer will have to do is stay out of the way.

But there is the issue of the border. Over the past two years, more than 40,000 people have crossed the Canada-U.S. border, seeking asylum. The Conservatives blame the Trudeau government for failing to deter these migrants, although the opposition has no good idea for how to stop the influx.

In recent months, the federal government has managed to reduce the flow of crossers. If it keeps the situation under control, the border may only be a minor issue during the next election. If, however, numbers increase, this could become A Big Thing.

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The Conservatives have every right to hold the Liberals responsible for failing to secure the border: That is, after all, one of any national government’s core responsibilities. And immigrant voters themselves can be hostile to claimants who they see as cheats and queue-jumpers. Mr. Ford, a conservative, won the support of immigrant voters in last year’s Ontario election, while criticizing Ottawa harshly over U.S.-Canada migrants.

But there is a downside for the Tories as well. Polls repeatedly show that about a third of Canadians are uneasy with the high levels of legal immigrants coming into Canada. A fraction of that one-third hold frankly racist beliefs. They generally vote Conservative, although in 2019 they will have Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada as an option.

If Mr. Scheer, in order to limit gains by the PPC, pushes too hard on the border issue, he could alienate immigrant voters who dominate ridings surrounding downtown Toronto and Vancouver. No party can lose those ridings and still win an election.

How to criticize the Liberals over the border without alienating immigrant voters? That is a delicate question. Mr. Scheer must convince us that he understands how vital high levels of skilled immigrants are to Canada’s future, how they will help grow both our population and our economy at a time when other Western countries are crippling their futures by closing their doors. Mr. Harper won the support of many immigrant voters in the 2008 and 2011 elections.

But the Conservatives lost their confidence in 2015. Mr. Scheer must win them back. Border issues could help Mr. Scheer get elected, or could cost him the election. Finding the right balance will be his biggest test as leader. How he handles it will tell us whether he has what it takes to be prime minister.

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