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Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest formally launches his campaign for the Conservative leadership campaign at an event in Calgary on March 10.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Up until the current Conservative confrontation, leadership campaigns in Canada have been notable for their lack of noteworthiness.

For the Liberals, they’ve been foregone conclusions. Jean Chrétien won the prize with ease, Paul Martin the same. Michael Ignatieff was anointed. Only the surprise win by Stéphane Dion in 2006 produced drama.

The Conservatives could hardly find candidates to run for the leadership in 2004 when Stephen Harper won. In the next contest, in 2017, the headliner was a political neophyte, Kevin O’Leary, whose major qualification was as a panelist on Shark Tank. Little-known Andrew Scheer won and faded away, to be succeeded by little-known Erin O’Toole, who faded even faster.

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But with establishment man Jean Charest and fire-breather Pierre Poilievre featured this time, heavyweights take the stage. The news media are all over this Conservative race, as they well should be. The stakes are sizzling.

For starters, just for starters, the identity of the Conservative party is on the line. With Mr. Charest, the old progressive conservatives have their best chance of taking back the party since their annihilation in 1993. What a stunning and significant turn that would be.

To a good degree, Canadian unity is on the ballot as well. A win by the right side of the party, led by Mr. Poilievre, would divide the nation more harshly along east-west, left-right and culture-war lines. But Mr. Charest, having led both provincial Liberal and federal Tory parties, and having played a Captain Canada role in the fight against Quebec separatists, has unity-builder and compromise qualifications second to none.

At stake, too, could well be the future of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Many Liberals will tell you that if Mr. Charest wins, Mr. Trudeau won’t run again. Not against a fellow Quebecker who could dip deeply into his harvest of seats in la belle province. Not against a fellow moderate who would broaden Conservative appeal in the east and likely hold the lion’s share of his party’s seats in the west. Add in the country’s fatigue factor with a Trudeau who’s been in power for three terms, and Mr. Charest would be the odds-on favourite.

But should convoy Conservative Mr. Poilievre win the prize, the chances of a Trudeau retirement shrink. The thought of the Tory finance critic taking over the country would be anathema to this Prime Minister, who would envisage his policy legacy being shredded.

Mr. Trudeau would see his chances of beating a candidate from the party’s small-tent, right-side phalanx as much better than taking down Mr. Charest. Mr. Poilievre is next to nowhere in Quebec. No Conservative leader from outside the province has ever won a majority government against a Quebec-based Liberal prime minister since Robert Borden defeated Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1911.

The sharp-as-a-tack, verbally agile Mr. Poilievre typifies what we have seen from conservatives on both sides of the border since the 1990s: the politics of anger. With Stephen Harper, the anger smouldered but was usually contained. With Mr. Poilievre it’s emotional, on the surface. Privately, he’s said to be different. Publicly he can’t help himself. As has already been evidenced in this campaign, he traffics in venom.

But the leadership race is Mr. Poilievre’s to lose. There’s a good chance he could barrel over Mr. Charest like a freight train. He has strong caucus support, almost owns the party base, and is off to a quick start. Mr. Charest’s campaign kickoff video was drowsy, and then he contracted COVID-19.

Mr. Charest’s problem is that he has “yesterday’s man” written all over him. I first saw him 40 years ago when Brian Mulroney recognized him as a future star and recruited him to run in the 1984 election. But he’s been out of politics for almost a decade. The instincts after such long layoff – the late Liberal John Turner’s return after such a time away being a foremost example – aren’t the same.

For the underdog Mr. Charest to have a chance he must create a movement of many thousands outside of the Tory base and combine his support with that of candidate Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., who is not to be underestimated.

He needs to cast himself as the unity candidate of not only the party but the country. With the ravages of war abroad, an inducement for voters might be peace at home. But for Conservatives, the biggest incentive for a Charest vote is that he’s their best chance of seeing the last of Justin Trudeau.

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