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Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks during a campaign rally March 31, 2022 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Conservative Party leadership race has been dominated by two stories lately: the turnout at rallies held by the presumptive front-runner, Pierre Poilievre; and the nastiness of the sparring between Mr. Poilievre and his chief rival, Jean Charest.

Mr. Poilievre was the first person to declare himself a candidate for the leadership, doing so three days after Erin O’Toole was voted out of the job by his caucus in early February. He is running an effective social media campaign, and has organized impressively sized rallies with supporters, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

Mr. Charest joined the race more than a month later. After a slow start, he has come out swinging at Mr. Poilievre. Most notably, he has accused him of being unfit to be party leader, on the grounds he supported the truckers who organized illegal blockades of key border crossings and laid siege to downtown Ottawa.

Mr. Poilievre and his spokespeople have counterpunched by accusing Mr. Charest, who served three terms as Quebec’s Liberal premier, of being a Liberal in disguise, and a Conservative-come-lately.

All this makes for a colourful contest. But it distracts from another development in the race: a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party that is as overdue as it is welcome.

The fight has its roots in the 2003 merger of the Canadian Alliance, formerly the Reform Party, and the Progressive Conservative Party. Together they formed the Conservative Party.

But calling it a “merger” isn’t accurate. It was a takeover of the PC Party by the populist, Western-based Canadian Alliance. Today, the Conservative Party is defined by a deep suspicion of Ottawa and Central Canadian “elites,” a rock-hard opposition to carbon pricing and gun controls, unquestioned support for the oil and gas industry, and resentment verging on hatred of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Its membership – the people who vote to select the party’s leader – has been dominated in the past two leadership campaigns by grievance-based, single-issue interests that don’t sell well in the broader Canadian electorate.

This is why Mr. Poilievre can question Mr. Charest’s Conservative bona fides, even though Mr. Charest was once the leader of PC Party, and a cabinet minister in the Mulroney government.

It’s also why Mr. O’Toole portrayed himself as a “true blue” Conservative in the 2020 party leadership race. He won that contest by campaigning against the carbon tax and gun control, and by aligning himself with two hard-right social conservatives on the ranked ballot used to select the leader.

Mr. O’Toole’s downfall came during the 2021 election campaign. In order to make himself more attractive to voters in Ontario and Quebec, he suddenly declared himself in favour of a version of a carbon tax and broke his promise to remove the Trudeau government’s ban on semi-automatic weapons. When he lost the election – the Conservatives’ third straight defeat against the Liberals – his reversals cost him his job.

What is refreshing in the current race is that neither of the leading candidates is attempting to moderate themselves.

Mr. Poilievre is who he is – a populist cashing in on anger at Ottawa and the Trudeau Liberals. He is trying to expand the party membership by signing up people who are anxious about the high cost of housing – a group that includes younger, urban voters.

He has also repeatedly made hay of the fact that Mr. Charest supports carbon pricing and gun control – modern Conservative heresy.

Yet Mr. Charest is unapologetic. He is not following in Mr. O’Toole’s footsteps and committing to platforms that won’t play well outside of the Prairies. He doesn’t hide his support for carbon pricing and emissions controls (while also pushing for more oil and gas development). He isn’t running away from his support for gun control. He is even pushing for an expansion of government, by promising broader child support for parents.

Mr. Poilievre is trying to reach more of the narrow-issue, angry voters who have dominated the party membership since Stephen Harper resigned as leader in late 2015.

Mr. Charest is trying to attract party members who were once aligned with the PC Party, and who today do not see themselves in either the Liberal or Conservative parties.

For the first time in a while, Conservative Party members will be able to pick between more than one shade of blue.

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