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Pierre Poilievre speaks at a press conference in Regina on March 4.Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

For most of his long career in politics – even at 42, he has been a politician nearly half his life – Pierre Poilievre has been on offence: as the prime minister’s personal attack dog while in government, as a front-bench critic in opposition. Now, as the front-runner in the race for Conservative leader, he finds himself for the first time in the position of having to play defence.

Or at any rate you would think he would. But Mr. Poilievre has begun his campaign in the same tail-gunner mode, attacking his fellow Conservatives in the race with the same venom he usually reserves for members of other parties. Jean Charest is “a Liberal.” Patrick Brown will “say anything” to win votes. Et cetera.

When Mr. Brown, the former Ontario Conservative leader and current mayor of Brampton, Ont., took Mr. Poilievre to task for his failure to stand up against Quebec’s Bill 21 – and for supporting the Harper government’s cynical ban on face coverings at citizenship ceremonies – Mr. Poilievre shot back with a statement declaring Mr. Brown was “lying,” “lies a lot” and not only that, was “lying.” For extra emphasis, he signed it.

Well. There will be months more of this, no doubt. What’s interesting at the moment is what these exchanges reveal about the state of play as the campaign begins. You can tell a lot about how the candidates are doing in any given race by how they act. Mr. Poilievre’s snarl, we must assume, is not just habitual, but reflects a deliberate strategy.

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On the surface this is surprising – not just because he is the prohibitive favourite (whose objective is usually to consolidate support behind him), not just because he claims to be “running for prime minister” (statesmen usually leave the cutwork to subordinates), but because of the rules of the race.

First, it uses a ranked ballot, rather than plurality voting. And second, rather than simple one-member-one-vote, it weights every riding equally: the 100 points allotted to each riding are divided among the candidates according to their share of the popular vote in that riding.

The first would ordinarily be expected to encourage greater comity among the candidates: to persuade supporters of other candidates to mark you as their second choice, it helps if you don’t call them lying Liberals. The second would likewise tend to reward casting a wider net: it’s not enough to rack up huge majorities in your own regional power base. You need to win votes across the country.

So you would think, again, that Mr. Poilievre would be trying to soften his image, the better to broaden his appeal: to draw in supporters of other candidates, and voters outside of Western Canada, where he is strongest. Unless, of course, he feels he already has enough votes, in enough of the country – enough, that is, to win on the first ballot.

And unless the combative, no-prisoners approach is what his supporters like about him. Bear in mind that, according to a recent Leger poll, 44 per cent of Conservative voters would vote for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. It is safe to assume that Mr. Poilievre holds an overwhelming lead among that particular voting bloc. (Indeed, he is currently the choice of 41 per cent of Conservative voters, to 10 per cent for Mr. Charest and 3 per cent for Mr. Brown.)

What those voters want is someone who will fight – well, I was going to say, fight for them, but it’s mostly fight against the people they despise, the people who they assume despise them: liberals, elites, academics, bureaucrats, the media of course, all the people who think they’re better than them, and need to be taken down a peg or two. Or at least given a poke.

So Mr. Poilievre doesn’t look very prime ministerial? They don’t want him to look prime ministerial, or any other bow to conventional standards or expectations of how politicians should behave. These are the very sorts of badges of elite approval they detest.

Tapping into that resentment proved Mr. Trump’s particular talent, mostly because Mr. Trump was every bit as resentful of the same people. Mr. Poilievre is attempting to harness the same loathing, though perhaps without the same authenticity. For in truth Mr. Poilievre is a member of the same elite class he attacks. He is not an outsider, but a consummate insider. He is not an anti-politician: His whole career has been in politics.

For the moment, however, Mr. Poilievre bestrides the Conservative Party. The only way his rivals can dislodge him is by selling new memberships wholesale – tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands – in effect remaking the party. It’s a long shot. The day we see Mr. Poilievre launch a charm offensive, we will know it is beginning to work.

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