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The Conservative Party's caucus is meeting in Halifax this week. It's lonely for the party down there. Not one Maritimes seat. But its leadership campaign brings good news. For the first time in a decade the party is having a real, open debate. Intellectual ossification has ended. Hopefully.

For the Conservatives, whose major appeal has been to old-stock Canadians, it is a critical juncture. Will they remain a Stephen Harper-styled entity or will they revert to their more progressive lineage?

"Fairness to All and Favour to None" was a slogan of the late, hardly great John Diefenbaker. Will the party take a turn in that Tory direction? Or will we see, beginning in Halifax, a reluctance to challenge the new conservatism, the pandering-to-prejudice, xenophobic brand as practised by Donald Trump and others? Thus far, candidates to head the party have been relatively silent about Mr. Trump's Stone Age proclivities.

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In their leadership contest, the Conservatives fear a fracturing – a rekindling of the tug of war between old Tories and Reformers. The odds of this have shot up courtesy of Kellie Leitch's push for values-testing for immigrants. Interim party leader Rona Ambrose quickly repudiated her position, then backed off a bit as an opinion poll showed the idea had substantial backing.

There isn't what one observer termed a "Trump Rump" among our Conservatives.

But given his popularity, given the Brexit vote, given the positive reaction to the Leitch proposal – which our elites pointedly denounced – there is ample evidence that raw-meat platforms can work. Not only rednecks come running.

Although they lost the last election, there are few indications our Conservatives are bent on major change. The leadership candidates who appear to have the upper hand are vigorous right-siders. Anyone thinking Tony Clement lacked hardline credentials need only look at his security platform laid out this week. Throw people considered to be potential terrorist threats behind bars without trial, he said, if they cannot be monitored 24/7.

Also on the hard right is popular Quebecker Maxime Bernier, whose economic platform is derided as Precambrian. Among the undeclared candidates is unilingual media magnet Kevin O'Leary, who doesn't really mind comparisons to Mr. Trump and whose economic plans are also criticized for being straight out of la-la land.

About to enter the race also is former House speaker and Saskatchewan Conservative Andrew Scheer. Young, bright and as boring as broccoli, he could emerge as the party's safe pick.

Party moderates lack a strong candidate. Peter MacKay, who wasn't really moderate to begin with, has backed away. Michael Chong has talent and integrity but is too mild-mannered to mount a strong charge. Deepak Obhrai is well-meaning but won't get to first base in the balloting.

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The wets might consider Cape Breton, N.S., native Lisa Raitt one of their own. Now that Mr. MacKay is out, Ms. Raitt, who performed capably in cabinet, will enter the race. As a Maritimer she's a more compassionate conservative and may be the best hope for change. Her French is palpably weak but today's Conservatives are less concerned about that than in the Brian Mulroney era, when Quebec was a base for them.

Conservatives realize they need a change in leadership style from the autocratic Mr. Harper, whose disrespect for democratic institutions, among other things, led to a personal disapproval rating north of 60 per cent. "Somewhere along the way," said Conservative candidate Scott Armstrong, who was defeated in Nova Scotia, "we lost the trust of the people."

The change in the leader's style and character can be made. The party has a steady support base of almost 30 per cent. It is a money-making machine. It has an advantageous position, courtesy of the sprawling Postmedia empire in the print media, and among the commentariat.

Lots of advantages. But if they stay on the wide right flank, if they don't make a concerted effort to broaden their appeal, they're taking a big risk. With the New Democratic Party shipwrecked, the Liberals can draw on major support from the left. Leave them the centre as well and it's game over.

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