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Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Erin O’Toole, left to right, Peter MacKay, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis wait for the start of the French Leadership Debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Conservative leadership race, which promised to be a big-name battle for the soul of Canada’s government-in-waiting, only to end up as a drab contest among B-listers, will be put out of its misery on Sunday with the selection of a successor to Andrew Scheer.

Mr. Scheer was shown the door, in so many words, after failing to capitalize on Liberal vulnerabilities in the 2019 election campaign with a performance that former Tory cabinet minister Peter MacKay would later say “was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.” Mr. Scheer’s personal views on abortion and same-sex marriage hung, as Mr. MacKay put it, around his neck like “a stinking albatross.”

Mr. MacKay, who jumped into the leadership race soon after making those comments, will find out on Sunday how much they have cost him. He performed an essential service by providing the impetus for efforts to oust Mr. Scheer. But he alienated many social conservatives by indirectly blaming them for the party’s 2019 loss.

Mr. MacKay’s principal rival for the leadership, Durham MP Erin O’Toole, wasted no time in courting those same social conservatives in a bid to win second- and third-ballot support from supporters of anti-abortion candidates Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan. Ms. Lewis, a lawyer who emigrated to Canada from Jamaica as a child, has shown herself to be such a well-rounded candidate, however, that she could eclipse Mr. O’Toole.

In 2017, Mr. O’Toole ran for the party’s leadership as a moderate. This time, he has embraced the same populist persona that propelled Doug Ford in the 2018 Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race. The difference is that, while it took no stretch of the imagination for Mr. Ford to play the populist, Mr. O’Toole’s attempt to do so has come off as inauthentic.

His boilerplate pitch to “Take back Canada” from the “radical left” and claims to represent “True Blue” Conservatives (as opposed to the mushy Red Tories Mr. MacKay apparently speaks for) will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. If he becomes leader, he will have plenty of stinking albatrosses to ward off centrist voters.

Mr. MacKay has not led a particularly inspiring campaign, although the pandemic is partly responsible for its subdued tone. He has, however, maintained his sense of self. Although his campaign misfired early on, most notably with an attack on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s yoga expenses, he has avoided the trap Mr. O’Toole fell into.

Mr. MacKay made it clear from the get-go that a Conservative Party led by him would be open and inclusive. And he put the so-cons on notice that he would not be reopening debates over abortion or same-sex marriage. Period. End of story.

Rather, he has vowed to make “acknowledging and fighting systemic racism in Canada” a priority. Such comments have earned him the “Liberal-lite” label from Tories who yearn for a hard-right turn reminiscent of what Stephen Harper promised before he became prime minister. Those Tories have forgotten what it takes to be successful.

Under Brian Mulroney, the Progressive Conservatives won back-to-back majorities in the 1980s by embracing free trade, fiscal-policy targets and progressive social policies. They inherited a record deficit from Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals. They managed to balance the program-spending budget at a time when double-digit interest rates pushed up debt-servicing costs.

Canada will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic facing its greatest fiscal challenges in a generation. The deficit, which hit 8 per cent of gross domestic product during Pierre Trudeau’s final year in office, is set to surpass 16 per cent of GDP this year. But with the departure of Bill Morneau as finance minister, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have abandoned any pretenses that they care about the deficit. Indeed, they want to spend even more on a “green” recovery, and overhaul the social safety net.

“We recognize that the government is facing significant pressure for increased spending, but now is not the time for a massive re-engineering of time-tested social programs,” the Business Council of Canada said in a letter this week to Mr. Morneau’s successor, Chrystia Freeland. “What is most needed now is a serious plan to build confidence, encourage private-sector job creation and attract business investment.”

Just because that is what you would expect corporate Canada to say does not mean it is not true. Whoever wins the Conservative race needs to keep that in mind. Canadians are not looking to relitigate old debates about abortion and same-sex marriage. They are looking for a government that can provide relief during a pandemic, sound economic policy during the recovery and a brighter future for their kids.

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