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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks to the media Monday, August 23, 2021 in Ottawa.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan RemiorzRyan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Since winning the Conservative leadership a year ago, Erin O’Toole has not typically benefited from comparisons drawn between him and Justin Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh. He does not have the Liberal Leader’s good looks, much less his perfectly coiffed hair. Unlike the New Democratic Leader, Mr. O’Toole is no TikTok sensation who lip-synchs “Yo bro who got you smiling like that.”

An Abacus Data poll released Thursday shows that barely 33 per cent of voters see Mr. O’Toole as “compassionate.” Only 40 per cent perceive him to be “friendly.” Mr. Trudeau (60 per cent) and Mr. Singh (66 per cent) are head-and-shoulders above the Tory Leader on the friendliness measure. Mr. Singh (61 per cent) and Mr. Trudeau (48 per cent) also come out ahead on the compassion metric. Those numbers could be hard for Mr. O’Toole to overcome.

“Any Conservative Leader starts out at a disadvantage on those attributes,” explains Abacus chief executive officer David Coletto. “What Erin O’Toole is trying to do is to break that down.”

A five-week-long federal election campaign offers a narrow window for changing deeply ingrained voter perceptions about the Conservative brand that became entrenched under the leadership of Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer. Both men were seen as humourless and austere and, frankly, contemptuous of those who did not share their staunchly conservative values.

Mr. O’Toole is a different political animal altogether. He is first and foremost the happy warrior. He has more in common with the assembly-line worker than the CEO. There is nothing fancy or eccentric about him.

He is no ideologue, either. Both Mr. Harper (the free-market purist) and Mr. Scheer (the strict social conservative) could not shake off their respective rigidities. Mr. O’Toole is more of a live-and-let-live Tory.

That makes him too amorphous for some Tories, who think their party should stand for something other than not being the Liberals or New Democrats. But it probably makes him more acceptable to a broader swath of the Canadian electorate than either of his predecessors.

The first Conservative ad launched in Quebec during the current election campaign shows Mr. O’Toole shaving and jogging and making breakfast – peanut butter on grocery store-bought bagels. The pitch is Quebec-specific, but one that translates easily across the country.

“I was born in Quebec. My father worked at the GM plant in Sainte-Thérèse,” the Tory Leader explains in a voice over with upbeat music playing in the background. “I understand middle-class families because that is where I come from.”

Long viewed as the party of Big Business, the Tories under Mr. O’Toole champion union rights and decry “bad” trade deals. An O’Toole government would require worker representation on the boards of federally regulated corporations and ensure worker pensions are paid out before executive bonuses at troubled companies. It would force gig economy employers to pay their workers a sum equivalent to the Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan premiums they would have to pay for full-time employees.

“Too much power is in the hands of corporate and financial elites who are happy to outsource jobs abroad,” the Tory Leader told a Bay Street audience in an October speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto. “It is now expected of a shareholder to ask a CEO: ‘Why are we paying a worker in Oshawa $30 an hour when we could be paying one in China 50 cents an hour?’ And while that shareholder gets richer, Canada gets poorer.”

Mr. O’Toole is courting blue-collar union members who feel driven from their natural political home – the NDP – by that party’s all-consuming embrace of identity politics. The NDP and Liberal emphasis on racial injustice has alienated many white working-class Canadians. Many did not bother voting at all in 2015 or 2019. But Mr. O’Toole thinks he can get them to vote for him.

Mr. O’Toole does not talk about the federal budget deficit. He worries more about his empathy deficit, which explains his focus this week on opioid addiction and mental health. While Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by both, the opioid epidemic is mainly a phenomenon of the white working class.

Similarly, post-traumatic stress disorder is especially rampant among Canadian military veterans who fought in Afghanistan, most of whom come from low-income backgrounds. Urban progressives do not typically join the military. Mr. O’Toole, who began his working life in the Canadian Forces, knows that better than most.

Much has been made of Mr. O’Toole’s efforts to follow the playbooks of former U.S. president Donald Trump (minus the ugliness and hate) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (minus the scatteredness) by courting cultural conservatives who lean left on economic policy. But the foreign politician the Tory Leader comes closest to emulating is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, an unremarkable everyman figure who nevertheless seems to resonate with average voters.

Could Mr. O’Toole end up doing the same on Sept. 20?

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