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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks to the media in Quebec City on Aug. 18, 2021.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Will this election turn on policy or personality?

Thus far there are no galvanizing ballot-box issues, only a vain search for one – as in the phony war over health care. This dynamic could work much to the advantage of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s image has been somewhat battered by the naked political self-interest he displayed with his needlessly early election call. By contrast, Mr. O’Toole is already surpassing low expectations. Sporting a cherubic grin, he’s coming across as peppy and prepared, a happy warrior on the hustings, although he still trails Mr. Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in personal approval ratings.

Mr. O’Toole represents a new style of leadership for the Tories, who haven’t often produced leaders you’d feel comfortable having a beer with. We recall R. B. Bennett, who wore a top hat through the Great Depression. There was Bob (Standstill) Stanfield – with his mortician’s gaze, he drew comparisons to Calvin Coolidge. Joe Clark liked to kick back with a few copies of Hansard, Brian Mulroney in a Savile Row suit, Andrew Scheer while giving Sunday school lessons. Charm school truant Stephen Harper broke into a smile about every equinox.

Mr. O’Toole struck a different note with the release of his platform to start the election campaign. There he was on the cover in a tight black T-shirt, beaming ear to ear, chomping at the bit. With its big spending provisions, the O’Toole policy book is compassionate compared with Mr. Harper’s years in office, not to mention the latter’s nice-guys-finish-last style.

With his enthusiasm, his own sunny ways, Mr. O’Toole quickly put Mr. Trudeau on the defensive, turning him a bit petulant. In just a week he improved his personal standing and moved his party from well behind to neck and neck with the incumbents.

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Whether this can last is questionable. It will require Mr. O’Toole to be a master of camouflage. His party is burdened by knuckle-draggers who oppose COVID-19 vaccines and, at a March convention, voted against a resolution recognizing climate change as real. Releasing his policy book right away brought Mr. O’Toole some advantages. But having put all his cards on the table, he has left a big opening for the Liberals to target and improve upon them with the coming release of their own platform.

The Liberals’ advertising team has so far been inept in not exploiting these issues. Its major attack, the one suggesting the Conservatives have a secret agenda to blow up the universal health care system, misfired badly.

Thus far, Mr. O’Toole has acrobatically bridged the gap between his troglodytes and moderates. He’s experienced at it. In winning last year’s party leadership, he cynically played both ends of the street. In his first losing bid, he appealed to traditional Tories. The second time around he curtsied to social conservatives and won.

The Conservative Leader is also benefiting from wads of luck. Working in his favour are the crisis in Afghanistan, a report showing a sharply higher inflation rate, rising COVID-19 numbers and the surprise victory by the Progressive Conservatives in the Nova Scotia election.

Mr. O’Toole also has the advantage of hailing from Ontario, which will be the kingmaker (what else is new?) in this election, not the West.

That he is an effective retail politician should come as no surprise. Last year’s Conservative leadership race was supposed to be Peter MacKay’s for the taking. He stole it out from under him.

This race was supposed to be Mr. Trudeau’s for the taking. It still is. On issues such as the pandemic and the climate crisis, he is stronger. But if it becomes a race that makes leadership the main ballot-box issue, the new style Mr. O’Toole brings to his party gives him a fighting chance.

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