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lawrence martin

In the Conservative leadership race, Andrew Scheer is the one to watch. Maybe.

The 37-year-old Saskatchewan MP is a model Conservative. He is clean-cut with a boyish smile, classic right-side credentials and down-home Prairie values. He is a throwback to that golden decade of the 1950s. Looks right off the set of Leave It to Beaver.

He served as Speaker of the House of Commons, has the support of 20 members of Parliament and senators and is a favourite of social conservatives. He's even got a sense of humour. At the leadership debate in Moncton on Tuesday, he cracked up the audience with the line that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will indeed bring equality – we'll all be "finishing last together."

The young Mr. Scheer is such a goody two-shoes that he bunked with mom and pop while away from Ottawa instead of staying in expensive hotels on the taxpayers' dime. As he told an interviewer several years ago, doing that is "great on a lot of levels."

It sure is. Except nah, it didn't happen. Huffington Post reporter Althia Raj went back and checked the records. It turns out Mr. Scheer claimed almost every penny of allowance permitted for accommodation and per diem expenses.

While not a devastating revelation, it's detrimental in that it moves his squeaky-clean image into the just-another-politician zone.

It's a leadership race, even more so now, in which there are no overdogs. With 14 participants on the stage, the Moncton debate could hardly have produced a winner. Shortly before it began, I ran across interim party leader Rona Ambrose who, lamenting the debate format, predicted as much. As for herself, she acknowledged that many want her in the race. But "rules are rules," she said, referencing party stipulations that forbid interim leaders from running for the full-time job.

The debate questions were boilerplate, and so were the answers. Most of the candidates vowed they would be tough on crime, cut taxes, build pipelines, let temperatures rise and create jobs. They weren't asked about Donald Trump and his cunning array of stunts or the "lock her up" chant of fellow travellers aimed at Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Nor were they queried about Kellie Leitch's latest, um, brainwave. She advocates allowing women to be outfitted with mace and pepper spray to ward off would-be assailants. You never know, after all, who might come leaping forth from behind the next telephone poll.

Ms. Leitch, who is a physician and is now referred to by some as Dr. Pepper, believes the media are out to get her. She's apparently baffled about why the fourth estate isn't clamouring to get behind her inspired initiative.

In one of the debate's few direct hits, Michael Chong went after Ms. Leitch and also Chris Alexander for his recent cheerleader routine after a crowd in Alberta bellowed to have Ms. Notley put in chains.

Mr. Chong has shown well in the debates. He has integrity in spades, having once resigned from cabinet on a point of principle, and balances his reddish Toryism with a plan for the mother of all tax cuts. He is the moderate Tory version of Mr. Scheer. Baby-faced and gleaming, bright and forthright, he is a promising contender.

As is Erin O'Toole, who, while borderline bland, has many strengths and broad appeal in the party. A 43-year-old former veterans affairs minister, he comes across as calm, strong and reasonable. He bridges the gap between moderates and the more rigidly inclined in the party.

The hope of both Mr. Chong and Mr. O'Toole is that the many hardliners in this race – the types the left deride as knuckle-draggers – will kill one another off. Hardliners? There's Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney, Dr. Pepper and Brad Trost – and others, whose platforms stop just short of bringing back hanging.

Liberals would love to see any of them win. And they might get their wish. The convention's preferential balloting system favours those with a lot of second- and third-choice support. The hardliners will likely have a cluster of candidates near the top. One could very well emerge with the crown.