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The paradox of the current Conservative Party of Canada leadership race is that the front-runner in the contest to replace Erin O’Toole is seeking to move the party in the opposite direction of where most available voters seem to be heading.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scales new heights of unpopularity, with more than half of Canadians now holding a negative opinion of the Liberal leader, Conservatives have a rare opening before them to capture the centre. With the ranks of disaffected Liberals swelling by the day, countless Canadians are scanning the horizon for a credible alternative to the Grits.

As it happens, it would be hard to find a Conservative leadership candidate better equipped to seize on that opportunity than Jean Charest. A recent Angus Reid Institute poll showed that the former federal Progressive-Conservative leader and ex-Liberal premier of Quebec could attract a sizable share of voters who cast a ballot for the federal Liberals in the 2021 election. He could even sway some New Democrats to switch their vote to the CPC. That is some feat.

Mr. Charest’s rival for the Tory leadership, Pierre Poilievre, could scoop up some People’s Party of Canada supporters, but would make little or no headway among centrist voters.

Unfortunately for Mr. Charest, the Conservative base appears to consider his crossover appeal a strike against him. The base is more interested in applying purity tests than debating complex solutions to 21st-century problems. It is little wonder that Mr. Poilievre has struck a chord.

After skipping last week’s Tory leadership debate, Mr. Poilievre quipped that he had better things to do than find himself “cooped up in a little hotel room around a small table listening to a defeated Liberal premier drone on about his latest carbon tax idea.” His comment undoubtedly regaled his own supporters. But to almost anyone else, it smacked of contempt.

It was also reminiscent in tone of the kinds of things former Conservative leader Stephen Harper once said before he became prime minister. Remember when he signed a letter that talked about the “imperative” of building “firewalls around Alberta?” Or when he accused Atlantic Canada of harbouring a “culture of defeatism” because of the region’s dependence on federal transfer payments?

Mr. Poilievre is also very good at stoking resentment among voters who feel estranged from the political process. So it is no surprise that Mr. Harper considers Mr. Poilievre his most worthy imitator. His July 25 endorsement of the Alberta-bred, Ottawa-area MP was surprising only to the extent that he felt a need to express publicly what most Conservative insiders already knew.

It is hard to believe, as some have suggested, that Mr. Harper broke his silence because he feared Mr. Poilievre was in any danger of losing the leadership race. A more plausible explanation for his endorsement lies in his antipathy toward Mr. Charest, with whom he clashed on plenty of occasions when he was prime minister and Mr. Charest Quebec’s premier.

The two men are very different kinds of politicians. Mr. Charest is a consummate networker, much like his political mentor, Brian Mulroney. His circle is wide and inclusive. Mr. Harper always eschewed that Mulroney-style chumminess, refusing to “go along to get along.” While he has had legitimate differences of opinion with Mr. Charest – notably over the latter’s (mis)use of a sudden federal equalization windfall to cut provincial income taxes in 2007 – the long-standing grudge match between them ultimately comes down to their bad chemistry.

“If Charest ever ran to be dogcatcher in Rivière-au-Tonnerre, Harper would drive all the way there in the dead of a pandemic winter – on a Ski-Doo, if he had to – to poleaxe his chances,” Mr. Harper’s former director of communications, Andrew MacDougall, wrote after his former boss’s endorsement of Mr. Poilievre.

The question now facing the Tory leadership front-runner is whether winning Mr. Harper’s seal of approval does him more harm than good in the longer run. According to a Nanos research poll, more than a third of Canadians said they had a more negative impression of Mr. Poilievre after Mr. Harper’s endorsement. Only 14 per cent said they had a more positive impression.

Liberals could portray Mr. Poilievre as Mr. Harper’s candidate to rally progressive voters behind them. By the time of the next election, however, Mr. Harper will have been out of power for a decade. It is doubtful such a strategy would be very effective.

Besides, Mr. Poilievre appears quite capable of mobilizing progressive voters against him all by himself. The student surpasses the master, once again.

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