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Included in the newly released rules for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives' lightning-speed leadership contest is a stab at ensuring some sort of continuity.

All candidates, the document proclaims, must commit in writing to support "the aims, principles and objects of the Party" and the policy resolutions PC members adopted at their convention last fall.

If Tories or anyone else think that removes any uncertainty about what exactly they will be after the votes are counted on March 10 – what values they have, what policies they advocate, what sort of Ontarians they most easily identify with – they are kidding themselves.

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What we are about to witness is a fight not just to be the face of the party that continues to lead opinion polls, but to determine its soul. And because of the stakes, the short timeline and the state of the party going into it, that fight promises to be messy and brutal and filled with controversy, even by leadership campaigns' normal standards.

The race, at its outset, appears to be shaping up as a choice between Doug Ford pitching the very specific brand of right-wing populism that helped make his brother mayor of Toronto, and whoever among Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliott and Rod Phillips emerges as the standard-bearer for a more genteel, Red Tory sort of conservatism.

Despite none of them currently serving in the PCs' caucus, the latter group all represent the party establishment to some degree. (Ms. Mulroney seems to have attracted the most high-level backroom talent early on.) They might make a different pitch to Ontarians, more fiscally conservative perhaps, than the centrist one former leader Patrick Brown prepared. But they would seek to present the Tories as a modern big-tent party – progressive on social issues, sensitive to concerns of historically marginalized populations, committed to fighting climate change.

Mr. Ford, by contrast, came out of the gate this week questioning his party's carbon-tax commitment and the province's sex-ed curriculum. He is all about tapping into the anger of segments of the electorate who believe government is hostage to the whims of politically correct elites.

Rarely, if ever, has any modern Canadian party faced this kind of decision about its identity months from an election it is favoured to win. And it will not be made any less stark by those policy resolutions passed in November. Not to be confused with Mr. Brown's platform (which the rules say nothing about keeping), the resolutions are mostly anodyne commitments any candidate could nominally claim to be keeping. Besides, there is zero chance the Tories would risk alienating Mr. Ford's support base by disqualifying him during the campaign for veering from orthodoxy.

Instead, what will mostly decide the Tories' direction is what usually determines leadership contests' outcomes: organizational ability to identify and mobilize supporters among the small segment of the population inclined to take out party memberships. That is daunting in its own way, because it is also impossible to recall any party less well-positioned to ensure that battle is fought fairly.

Even carefully planned leaderships are often marred by allegations of cheating. Consider last year's federal Conservative race, in which the party banned all cash payments for memberships in hope of preventing campaigns from claiming their recruits had paid their own way – only to wind up disqualifying thousands of memberships it determined were bought in bulk with prepaid credit cards.

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Now consider the crazed rush each of the leadership campaigns will be in to sign up new members – something that still can be done with cash payments, provincially – during the two-week window before the Feb. 16 deadline for voting eligibility. And consider, too, the brief time party officials will have to weed out problems in the giant piles of memberships they will suddenly have dumped upon them, with the vote starting two weeks after that.

Some parties might be up to the challenge of working on these sorts of deadlines. The Ontario PCs are unlikely to be among them.

Their interim leader, Vic Fedeli, has spent recent days lamenting "rot" in the party infrastructure. Some of this initially seemed to be hyperbole aimed at strengthening his hold on the job. But other party insiders back up the concerns Mr. Fedeli and others have voiced publicly about the state of the party's membership rolls – that is, the roughly 200,000 people already eligible to vote in this contest. Whether they were enlisted to vote in riding-level nomination contests (which generated several separate allegations of fraud) or otherwise, there are questions about how many were signed up in accordance with party rules.

It's not clear the Tories had better options at this point than running this process and hoping for the best. Spreading the contest over a much longer timeline was not an option. Leaving the decision to caucus – letting Mr. Fedeli lead them into the election – would have alienated much of the grassroots.

But we may well be hearing complaints about how this played out well after the fact.

By then, it may be too late to do anything about it. Especially if whoever they choose is the premier of Ontario.

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