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Conservative leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre at the Conservative Party of Canada French-language leadership debate in Laval, Que., on May 25.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

With the deadline for signing up new members now over, the race to become leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada enters a critical new phase: facing reality.

If the numbers are to be believed, presumed front-runner Pierre Poilievre is the odds-on favourite to win this competition. His campaign says it signed up almost 312,000 new members – a staggering figure.

Patrick Brown’s campaign says it signed up less than half that – about 150,000. Jean Charest isn’t saying. Neither are the others. With Mr. Poilievre’s eye-popping number out there, it would surely be too embarrassing for the others to make their totals public.

For all intents and purposes, then, this race is over. Mr. Poilievre could easily win on the first ballot, which takes some pressure off him to spend the next few months trying to persuade the supporters of the other candidates to consider him as their second or third choice, which is usually important in a ranked-ballot leadership vote that goes a few rounds.

Say what you will about Mr. Poilievre’s policies – many of which range from disturbing to all-out bonkers – his campaign is a well-oiled machine. Whether it is successful in getting all those people it signed up to vote for him remains to be seen, though all the candidates will face the same issue.

Perhaps the most interesting thing left to watch will be how Mr. Poilievre behaves from now until the party membership votes on Sept. 10. Does he begin to play it safe with his pronouncements, or will he double down on his aim to be disruptor-in-chief?

This idea of someone taking over in Ottawa and bringing the elites to their knees has obvious appeal. So when Mr. Poilievre says he’d fire the governor of the Bank of Canada and all the “gatekeepers” preventing Canadians from enjoying their true potential, the freedom fighters cheer him on. When he boasts about putting forward a private member’s bill that would “scrap all vaccine mandates and ban any and all future vaccine mandates,” they applaud even louder.

The fact that his supporters are blind to the gross hypocrisy that underscores much of Mr. Poilievre’s public persona is just good fortune on the candidate’s part.

After all, we’re talking about a career politician who qualified for a gold-plated government pension at the age of 32. He has been a wealthy, full-fledged member of the Ottawa elite since he was elected in his 20s.

Mr. Poilievre is also a phoney when it comes to his policies. His oft-stated intention to make Canada the freest country on Earth certainly had an appealing ring to the mostly white protesters who participated in the self-described “freedom convoy” earlier this year, to whom he pandered shamelessly. But if he really wanted to make Canada the freest country on Earth, he’d be vowing to end Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21, which takes aim at the rights of people like teacher Fatemeh Anvari, who was removed from her classroom last December for refusing to take off her hijab. But then, the core of his supporters don’t care about Ms. Anvari, so neither does he, apparently.

Even his populist bill aimed at “medical freedom” doesn’t hold water. His proposal explicitly mentions only COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

It’s doubtful the results of the recent Ontario election will give Mr. Poilievre pause about the direction he intends to take the Conservatives should he win in September, which is to say to the hard right.

Doug Ford took his Progressive Conservative Party on a decidedly different direction: straight up the middle. As a result, he was returned to power with a massive majority.

In fact, he won with a battle plan that looked very much like the one Erin O’Toole ran on federally in 2021: a centrist platform with a direct appeal to the blue-collar voter. But the then-federal Conservative leader lacked Mr. Ford’s “everyperson” appeal – the sense that people could see themselves having a beer with the politician. Mr. Poilievre lacks that quality, too.

It’s worth recalling that, back in 2019, Maclean’s magazine featured the five Conservative politicians leading the fight against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax and dubbed them, with tongue in cheek, “the resistance”: then-federal leader Andrew Scheer and premiers Brian Pallister, Jason Kenney, Scott Moe and Mr. Ford.

Of the five, only Mr. Moe and Mr. Ford remain viable entities; the others were forced out or will soon leave office. Mr. Ford, a political survivor, adapted his policy agenda by ending his war with the Prime Minister and shifting more toward the centre – and now he is arguably the most successful conservative politician in the country.

Is Pierre Poilievre taking notes? Or does he even care?

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