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opinion

Until less than two weeks ago, Caroline Mulroney was being advised by Progressive Conservative insiders helping steer her entry into politics that she should take it slow.

Worry about establishing herself as a local candidate in York Simcoe, the safe riding into which she'd been parachuted to run for the PCs in this spring's provincial election, veterans of elected office and campaign management counselled. Avoid seeking out media attention, until she got more comfortable in the spotlight. Keep her head down.

And then, almost from one minute to the next, she went from being told not to broadcast any ambitions beyond being a dedicated member of Ontario's legislature, to being told – including by some of the same people – that she needs to step in and save her party by running to be its leader and hopefully her province's next premier.

Ms. Mulroney by all accounts and appearances followed the earlier advice, and now she is poised to accept the call of duty by announcing her candidacy to replace Patrick Brown. If she does so wearing a neck brace, chalk it up to a common case of whiplash among provincial Tories, after they were thrown off their steady path to the coming campaign by Mr. Brown's dead-of-night departure.

But there are very few Tories for whom the personal stakes are higher, in how they navigate this new world they're suddenly in. And if all the stalwarts previously cautioning her to take it slow were right that she had enough potential worth carefully managing, that makes the stakes for her party very high as well.

It is not every day that the Ontario PCs are able to attract someone with Ms. Mulroney's credentials, on paper at least – a Harvard education, a successful law and business career, an impressive philanthropic record, a famous last name that hints at other opportunities she has. That she also happens to be a relatively young woman – a co-founder of a charity that helps women and girls in homeless shelters – makes her potentially invaluable to a party with a caucus that is disproportionately old and male, and that has struggled in losing election after election to break through with urban and suburban female voters.

Under the current circumstances, those characteristics look even more valuable than usual, and help explain the sudden urgency conveyed to her by her admirers, which have come to include former officials of Mr. Brown's who gravitated to her as soon as he was out of the picture. There was an immediate sense among many Tories that after the resignations of both Mr. Brown and erstwhile party president Rick Dykstra, they would be well-served by putting a woman at their helm.

Send Doug Ford or even Vic Fedeli – the 61-year-old interim leader who had designs on the job longer term – into battle against Premier Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath during the general election, and the Tories could easily be cast as a party of dinosaurs. Send a polished, professional 43-year-old mother of four into that fight, and the Tories would be able to finally capitalize on the Liberal government's deep unpopularity. (The pressure on Ms. Mulroney mounted before former deputy leader Christine Elliott threw her hat into the ring, but persisted thereafter, in part because of Ms. Elliott's lacklustre performance in two previous leadership contests.)

But with Ms. Mulroney, there is really no way of knowing how the "polished and professional" part will translate into politics, just yet. About the only times she has been seen speaking in a political context were when she co-MC'd the federal Conservatives' announcement of their leadership results last year, and when she launched as a local candidate; both times, she was low-key and competent, but not wildly compelling.

The demands as she steps into the spotlight now will be much greater, and with each day that recently passed – as her campaign team put out word that she was running, but was not seen in public – the curiosity about how she will meet them grew. There is no getting around that the famous last name fuels that intrigue; the sense, fairly or not, that she is trying to follow Justin Trudeau's dynastic lead.

If she falls flat on her face when she officially announces her candidacy this week, or in a debate with her leadership opponents, or against Ms. Wynne after winning the leadership because of a strong organization (led by Mr. Brown's erstwhile campaign director) behind her, it will make it much harder to ever build on that promise that veteran Tories seem to have seen in her.

Even if she just underwhelms, doesn't embarrass herself but doesn't perform well enough to win, it could cause the people who were once urging patience to wonder what might have been if it had been easier to exert it now.

It's possible Ms. Mulroney will be left wondering that, herself. But accomplished in her own right, having grown up in the family she did, she presumably understands what she is getting herself into. For all that advice, she's the only one who could really know now if she's ready – or ready enough, at least.

She was being groomed to be a cabinet minister, maybe a leader taking over in calmer times. Instead she's being asked to be a saviour. It's a useful reminder, if an extreme one, that in politics you never quite get to pick your moment.