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The much-anticipated first debate between the three contenders to lead the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario was dominated by a low-profile fourth candidate whose participation was only confirmed the day before.

While Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney politely recited their talking points and tried not to talk themselves into too much trouble when forced off script, Tanya Granic Allen – an activist against Ontario's new sex education curriculum – displayed a serious chip on her shoulder.

Decrying curriculum that she (falsely) claimed has kids spending their time learning about anal sex, picking a fight with Ms. Elliott over the former MPP's support for transgender rights, proclaiming the Tories' current policy platform dead and saying that corruption "has run this party into the ground," Ms. Granic Allen was a somewhat exhausting presence. But she certainly made the most of her opportunity to set the leadership campaign's tone.

In another party, at another time, it would be tempting to brush that off as a blip – the sort of distraction from more serious business at hand that single-issue candidates have been offering for eons. But for these PCs, it very much spoke to who they are right now – a party lacking not just a leader but a discernible identity, its recent attempts at proving ready for government going up in smoke amid divisive controversies new and long-simmering.

Before his resignation as leader three weeks ago, Patrick Brown made a concerted effort to reclaim the Red Toryism of the PCs' past, promising modest directional change from Ontario's Liberal government and no dabbling in the hot-button issues that have rallied conservative hard-liners (and alienated others) in recent decades. And he made a big show of how he was creating an energetic big-tent party loaded up with lots of new members from a diverse range of communities.

Now, it's turned out the latter claim was so dubious that the Tories are busy scrubbing bogus members and overturning nominations. And if Mr. Brown's moderate policy agenda initially seemed a little more sturdy, Thursday's debate showed just how little it counted for as well.

It wasn't just Ms. Granic Allen setting fire to the platform plan that party officials had spent the better part of two years lovingly crafting, even if she was by far the most gleeful arsonist.

Opposition to the province's updated sex-ed curriculum, the current litmus test for Ontario's social conservatives, is the sort of issue that makes other Tories cringe at the prospect of being labelled prudish or homophobic. But after Mr. Brown finally seemed to have gotten it off the table (after earlier flirting with opposition himself), Ms. Mulroney was the only candidate who would say she'd keep the curriculum in place.

Possibly the positioning on that particular issue could be chalked up somewhat to the fourth candidate's presence, since the second-choice votes of Ms. Granic Allen's supporters could be decisive in a tight race. But that consideration doesn't explain why the candidates were practically tripping over each other during the debate to express their opposition to a carbon tax – probably the single most important element of Mr. Brown's effort to project modernity.

The uniform agreement that they would push back against the federal government's carbon-pricing requirements, possibly with legal action, reflected that Mr. Brown had made compliance party policy in only the most high-level way.

Given that Mr. Brown evidently failed to bring the rank-and-file along as he claimed, this campaign might conceivably serve as a correction. Maybe the next leader could figure out how to craft an agenda that's saleable to the broader electorate without alienating the base. But that would require a level of seriousness that none of the contenders has yet mustered.

It's not just that, as again proved the case Thursday, they have no good answer for how they would do without carbon-tax revenue without forgoing spending priorities. It's also that on most issues they're incapable of distinguishing themselves with specific policy commitments.

Mr. Ford is most obviously guilty on that front, at times displaying a lack of even cursory knowledge of provincial policy, and falling back on boasts about what he and his late brother Rob did at the municipal level. But if Ms. Elliott and Ms. Mulroney at least seemed to know what the current government does, they were mostly hard-pressed to explain what they would do differently.

In fairness, leadership campaigns are often a bit like that. But usually, they're not held three months from a general election that the party has a good chance of winning. In other campaigns, optimists can focus on the selling points of each candidate – Ms. Mulroney's combination of youthfulness and professionalism, Ms. Elliott's experience, Mr. Ford's populism – and figure that their pitch can be fleshed out in the years before going to the general electorate.

Maybe one of those selling points, from whoever emerges from this, will be enough against an unpopular premier. But good luck guessing what a PC government would look like. Amid the chaos, the Ontario PC Party is a void right now. No wonder Ms. Granic Allen was able to step into it, for one day at least.

Ontario PC leadership contenders Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney say they would wait until “the facts” are in before deciding the future of former leader Patrick Brown in the party. Brown resigned amid sexual misconduct claims, which he says are false.

The Canadian Press