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Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Lawrence Martin

Tory race down to three – and that’s the way it will stay Add to ...

The 14-person race for the Conservative leadership is down to three: Maxime Bernier, Kevin O’Leary, and Andrew Scheer. Insiders tell you this, polls tell you this – and there’s another thing. It’s the format of the leadership campaign. The process serves to make it a low-key affair from start to finish. Leading candidates will remain leading candidates.

Under the old delegated leader selection system, the conventions could produce searing dramas, horse-trading, and gang-ups from a group of candidates to stop a favourite from winning.

Not now. Now there will be no real convention to speak of, no wheeling and dealing on the floor, no speeches that see a candidate rise or fall. Instead, just announcements of computer computations of mind-dizzying ranked-balloting outcomes.

Adam Radwanski: Why are Conservatives drawn to Kevin O'Leary?

If anyone saw the Parti Québécois’ selection last year of Jean-François Lisée as party leader, they would get the picture. Insomniacs had their best day in years.

The old system also featured pitched battles among the candidates for delegates in every riding. It created much media interest. That process is gone, too, replaced by a system that sees one-hundred points apportioned to each riding. This is terrific for probability theorists and data detectives. Others are tuned out.

The campaign debates, carried on secondary broadcast outlets, have attracted pint-sized audiences. The debates for the Republican nomination in the United States last year ran on big networks and scored huge ratings. Interest among Canadian conservatives in their race is surprisingly trifling by comparison.

Our major networks should be running nationally televised debates – it’s not too late – and giving this leadership contest the prominence it deserves. It is no small matter. More often than not, Liberal and Conservative leadership campaigns produce future prime ministers.

Rival camps of the three top contenders argue that the race is, in fact, volatile.

Given the preferential ranked balloting system wherein a voter’s second choice figures strongly in the outcome, they contend that it’s foolhardy to make assumptions based on current polling.

But that doesn’t hold up. Outside the top group, there’s a second tier of moderate contenders that includes Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt and Erin O’Toole, all fine candidates.

The thinking goes that support will coalesce around one of them as the balloting wears on and that it will be enough to surmount the leaders. But given that they are far back from the leaders to begin with, and given that second-choice support is likely to be dispersed among them, there just isn’t enough firepower in that tier to have one of them emerge as top vote getter.

Mr. Bernier, Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Scheer also have strong ground games and more financing than most of the other candidates. They will be collecting a lot of votes from bottom-tier candidates who are more inclined toward the right side of the party and will be falling off the balloting early.

She has faded recently, but hardliner Kellie Leitch is still among the leaders in the polls. The second-choice votes among her supporters are more likely to go to the top-tier candidates as well.

Though Mr. Scheer isn’t doing as well in the polling as Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Bernier, he has the most caucus support and is strong among social conservatives and the religious right.

There’s still two months to go before the May 27 decision day. Several candidates can be expected to drop out. But their support levels are so small that if they endorse another candidate, it’s not likely to change the dynamic of the race.

The contest is not what the Conservative party wanted and the process it chose is much to blame. This will become all the more apparent as the race trudges toward its spectacle-free finale.

Past Tory leadership contests often drew all kinds of attention and brought on a nice bounce in the polls for the party.

That’s unlikely to happen this time. What is more likely is that the Conservatives will scrap their lifeless leadership selection process.

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