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Voters in the election for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968 had their choice between, among others, Pierre Trudeau, Robert Winters, Paul Martin Sr., John Turner and Allan MacEachen – cabinet ministers all, men of great accomplishment and/or promise.

The previous year had seen a race for Progressive Conservative leader that included Robert Stanfield, Duff Roblin, Davie Fulton, Donald Fleming and John Diefenbaker. That’s two former premiers, former ministers of justice and finance, and a former prime minister.

Even the 2017 Conservative leadership race, widely derided as a cast of also-rans, featured eight former cabinet ministers – people with experience in politics and government at the highest level. This at a time when the Conservatives were expected to spend the next decade or more in opposition.

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Compare, then, the field for Conservative leader in 2020, with Thursday’s closing of nominations. There is Peter MacKay, a former minister of defence, justice and foreign affairs, and the last leader of the Progressive Conservatives. And there is Erin O’Toole, a former minister of veterans affairs.

They are the only two “authorized contestants,” meaning they have not only passed the initial hurdle to enter the race – having paid a $25,000 fee and collected at least 1,000 signatures in support of their candidacy from party members in at least 30 ridings in seven provinces – but have also paid a second instalment of $25,000, posted a $100,000 deposit and collected another 1,000 signatures.

It is debatable whether any of the other candidates who have officially entered the race will get that far, let alone meet the requirements for actually placing their name on the ballot: another $150,000 in fees and another 1,000 signatures, all by March 25.

Perhaps businessman and former Conservative leadership candidate Rick Peterson – he finished 12th in 2017 – may manage it. Maybe Marilyn Gladu, MP and shadow minister of health, can squeak in.

But as for Conservative staffer Rudy Husny, former staffer Richard Décarie, Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, MP Derek Sloan and activist Jim Karahalios – good luck. Maybe if the social conservative movement, with which the last four are associated, can coalesce around a single candidate he or she might get on the ballot.

So a race that was supposed to be an opportunity for renewal for a party that, despite its failure to break through in 2019, was well placed to defeat a weakened Liberal government in the next election, has instead dwindled to a contest between two serious candidates and a collection of rookies, oddballs and outsiders. The word “fiasco” comes to mind.

Even the serious candidates leave much to be desired. Mr. MacKay has the more impressive résumé on paper, but only on paper, his series of cabinet posts noteworthy for the footprints he failed to leave behind. Besides his brief stint at veterans affairs, Mr. O’Toole is distinguished mostly for finishing third to Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier in the 2017 race.

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And while neither man would be an intolerable choice, neither is associated with any particular strand of thinking within the party. Both, rather, are agreeable chaps united by a liking for the military and a shared belief that people like them ought to be running things – in the service of which they will say and do whatever is required, whether it is pandering to the base to win the leadership or betraying them in the general election.

Both, then, have been making the kinds of grunting noises that are considered obligatory in Conservative politics in 2020 – bellowing about the “thugs” on the railway lines or the “radical left” on campus – but without any particular conviction. What might be called (to borrow a phrase) the conservative wing of the Conservative Party seems likely to remain unrepresented in this race.

Mr. Peterson may fill that bill – he’s certainly got lots of ideas, even if not all of them have been fully thought out. But his poor showing the last time will haunt him. Ms. Gladu, though personally impressive, is a relative unknown. And it only falls off more sharply after that.

How did it come to this? Why did so many potential candidates of stature – Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest, John Baird – give the race a pass? Why was the field so thin beyond that?

Part of the explanation lies in the decline of politics generally. The Conservatives aren’t the only party to suffer a dearth of credible leadership candidates, and for the same reason: Power has been so centralized in the leader’s office that even cabinet ministers rarely have a chance to develop either the profile or the experience needed to make a run – which means talented, ambitious people have tended to look elsewhere.

Part of it is the particular recruiting challenge facing the Conservative Party. As the party that is only occasionally in government, when voters tire of the Liberals, it cannot offer candidates the same assurance that one day they will be in power that the Liberals can.

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But much of it can be blamed on the party’s recent leadership and current executive. Stephen Harper was in power for nearly a decade, yet failed either to recruit much in the way of new talent or promote from within. You could count on one hand the ministers in his cabinet who had any real reason to be there other than slavish personal loyalty to the leader, the one principle to which his government was committed.

On top of that, the rules for the race, devised by the leadership race organizing committee but with the tacit approval of the party’s national council, have proved a needless barrier to candidates of quality – the kind with ideas and ability in place of networks and name recognition, who might just catch fire with the members if given the chance.

The $300,000 in fees and deposits, after all, are just the start: There are also the costs, nearly as great, of the campaign itself. Who can commit to that sort of outlay, knowing they can only recoup it out of small donations? Who, but either the best-known candidates, or the ones with the most fanatical followers?

Supposedly the rules were going to produce a field of big names, while keeping the weirdos out. They may yet succeed in neither.

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