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opinion

With the abbreviated Ontario Conservative leadership race under way, a key question is whether the method of electing the leader helps or hurts any of the candidates. The answer is good news for Christine Elliott and bad news for Doug Ford.

Everything about this leadership race is beyond strange: how it started – an alleged sex scandal arriving out of the blue in late January that toppled Patrick Brown as incumbent leader – and how it will end – in less than two weeks, with Mr. Brown running to get his old job back. No one has ever seen anything like this before.

As with the federal Conservative race, Ontario PC members will mark a preferential ballot – ranking the candidates from first to last choice. But here's the thing: The provincial contest also mimics the federal contest by giving equal weight to each riding. This could make it very hard for Mr. Ford to win.

The populist conservative candidate should be able to drive party members his way in Toronto. But however many ballots are cast in Etobicoke North, that riding has no greater weight than Mushkegowuk-James Bay. And Mr. Ford is rarely seen in Mushkegowuk-James Bay. He has never campaigned provincewide.

Ms. Elliott, on the other hand, has already run for Ontario PC leader twice (and lost). Along with her own organization, she has Erin O'Toole's support. The Durham MP finished a strong third in last year's federal leadership race, and his machine will bolster her machine. In any Conservative contest, it's a good thing to have Mr. O'Toole in your corner.

Caroline Mulroney has earned the support of many in the party establishment, and has had considerable fundraising success. Her cause received a bit of a setback on the weekend, when Parm Gill, a former MP who is the provincial PC candidate in Milton, switched his support from Ms. Mulroney to Ms. Elliott. But that will hardly be fatal. She is a strong contender.

And Mr. Brown was elected leader less than three years ago, and theoretically should have strong support among party members, though how many will stay with him is beyond this writer's ken.

But Ms. Elliott has another important advantage: She is more likely than any other candidate to be a voter's second choice. Since Mr. Ford and Mr. Brown are both polarizing figures, they will have little second-choice support. You are either completely for, or completely against.

If your first choice is Mr. Ford, your second choice is likely to be Ms. Elliott, because Ms. Mulroney hews more to the Red Tory wing of the party. Ms. Mulroney would not, for example, open up the sex-ed curriculum for revision, which both Mr. Ford and Ms. Elliott have promised to do.

But Ms. Elliott is far from extreme in her views (if she were, she would never have earned Mr. O'Toole's endorsement, or that of Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong), and won't greatly alarm Progressive Conservatives who are more adjective than noun.

Ms. Elliott should be favoured if the vote goes several rounds, although Ms. Mulroney will also be in the hunt.

Here is another way of looking at it. Try this thought exercise: Assume that many Ontarians who voted in the federal Conservative leadership race will also vote in the Ontario PC leadership race. (I think that's a reasonable assumption.) What would their previous vote tell you?

The most strongly social-conservative candidate, MP Brad Trost, received a maximum of 14 per cent of the vote, which isn't a lot, so that's not good for Mr. Ford. (And it is why I am consigning Tanya Granic Allen, a social-conservative activist, to fringe-candidate status.) The most progressive candidate, Mr. Chong, never cracked 10 per cent, which will be bad news for Ms. Mulroney if she is, indeed, the Red Tory candidate.

In the final ballot, Andrew Scheer, who is centre-right on both fiscal and social issues, defeated the libertarian Maxime Bernier. Which of the four mainstream PCPO candidates most resembles Andrew Scheer? To these eyes, Ms. Elliott is the closest fit.

All the above could be rot. Mr. Brown may hold the loyalty of the membership; Ms. Mulroney may offer the fresh face that so many party members desire. Seriously blue Conservatives in the rural shires could stampede to Mr. Ford.

But from this distant vantage point – many years ago, I left Ontario and moved to Ottawa – Ms. Elliott should be feeling cautiously optimistic right now.

Interim Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Vic Fedeli says he informed party executives of his lack of confidence in Patrick Brown hours before the ousted PC leader launched a bid to reclaim his job.

The Canadian Press