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The contest to lead Ontario's Progressive Conservatives has only just begun, but it's already in crunch time.

On Thursday, Doug Ford, Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney square off against one another in the first of two scheduled debates; the following day is the cut-off for signing up new members eligible to vote before results are announced on March 10 as well as the deadline for candidates to submit their $100,000 fee.

It's not only a pivotal week, but one loaded with intrigue. Strange storylines are already setting this leadership race apart from most others and will go far toward determining who emerges at the helm of a party with a good chance of forming government in four months time.

The mysterious manoeuvring of the ousted leader

Since last weekend, when Patrick Brown used a Postmedia interview to defend himself against the pair of sexual-misconduct allegations that prompted his resignation as leader, there has been a seemingly co-ordinated effort to prove he retains support within his party. Among the most obvious signs is that at last check, 16 nominated riding-level PC candidates had tweeted out the interview, some offering strikingly similar words of support; each was retweeted by Mr. Brown.

It's possible such efforts by Mr. Brown or those close to him are just about restoring his name. But a couple of other theories are also making the rounds.

One is that, implausible though it may seem, Mr. Brown is weighing whether to enter the race himself. Whether the party would let him do so isn't clear. If he did run, it would be one way of trying to show he doesn't believe he has anything for which to apologize.

The other, stronger rumour is that he is shopping a deal in which he would quietly help one of the candidates vying to replace him, in return for being allowed to remain in the PC caucus.

Whatever Mr. Brown chooses to do, his potential influence shouldn't be underestimated.

The surprise emergence of a possible stalking horse

The announcement by staunch social conservative Tanya Granic Allen that she intends to seek the leadership hasn't gotten as much media attention as the other candidacies. Her chances of winning are extremely low and there is considerable doubt about whether she'll even be able to raise enough money to stand as a candidate.

But it almost doesn't matter whether Ms. Granic Allen – president of Parents as First Educators, which lobbies against Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum – officially enters. What matters is that she is currently selling memberships to like-minded conservatives who might not enlist if she wasn't running.

The potential for thousands of so-cons to be sent their way helps explain why other candidates are talking lots about hot-button social issues. Ms. Elliott, who in previous bids for the PC leadership ran as a social liberal, says she is willing to revisit sex ed and that, under her leadership, "the PC Party will always allow free votes on matters of conscience."

But Mr. Ford – more outspoken about reviewing the curriculum, with more of a record of expressing socially conservative views and Canada Christian College president Charles McVety publicly backing him – seems likeliest to be the beneficiary.

Chasing endorsements from the unelected

Among the unique aspects of this campaign is that it started after the party nominated most of its candidates for this spring's general election. Many of those candidates won competitive local battles, which required signing up lots of members.

It's impossible to know exactly what share of the party's total membership coming into this race consisted of those sign-ups, in part because the membership rolls are a mess: Mr. Brown boasted the party had over 200,000 members; the number turns out to be more like 130,000 and even that total likely includes paper members.

What is clear is that local candidates who worked hard to secure nominations should be well-positioned to deliver their ridings (each of which counts equally in the Tories' leadership system, regardless of how many people vote there) to their candidate of choice. That makes endorsements from many of the 68 nominated candidates who don't currently have seats more valuable than those from the party's 29 MPPs, most of whom had no recent incentive to recruit.

While Ms. Elliott currently has the most caucus endorsements, Ms. Mulroney leads among nominated candidates. More than half have yet to endorse and are, no doubt, having their doors beaten down.

The unusually high-stakes debate

Debates during leadership campaigns usually don't count for much, because such races are typically more about organizational ability to sign up new members than persuasion efforts for existing ones.

But Thursday's, hosted by TVOntario, will be different. Courtesy of the short recruitment window, the number of new members will likely be dwarfed by pre-existing members. So a lot of voters who do not have allegiance to any candidate will have incentive to watch closely.

Each of the candidates has much to prove: Mr. Ford that he can be somewhat statesmanlike, Ms. Mulroney that she's readier for the spotlight than she's seemed in early campaign appearances, Ms. Elliott that she has more spark than she showed in two previous leadership bids. How they will all look next to one another is among this campaign's many great unknowns.

The newly appointed interim leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, Vic Fedeli, says he won’t be entering the race to be permanent leader. Fedeli says he needs to dedicate his time to fixing the party's internal problems.

The Canadian Press

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