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Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 31, 2022.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Don’t ask if Pierre Poilievre is running for the leadership. He has been standing around trying to look like the alternative since the fall election. He was building up a huge personal populist social-media brand before that. And when he said last week he was going to meet protesting truckers – before Erin O’Toole did – he was putting himself in the shop window.

At this point, he doesn’t have much of a choice. He has made himself into the standard-bearer of the populist right of the party – promising to fight for those folks – and now they are calling his name. If he turns them down now, he will be turning down his shot at becoming prime minister.

So the big question is whether there is anyone else in the Conservative Party who will mount a serious challenge to Mr. Poilievre. And it appears the answer will be: No.

Mr. Poilievre’s embrace of the truckers’ protest may have been the moment that doomed Mr. O’Toole’s leadership, because it pressed the now-former leader to flip-flop and say he would meet the protestors.

But even before that, Mr. Poilievre was the one getting the clips on TV and the social-media mentions, anyway. He uses far more pointed, populist messages than Mr. O’Toole did. Mr. Poilievre didn’t just oppose vaccine mandates for truckers; he labelled them a vaccine vendetta. Some of protest slogans on the signs on Wellington Street – such as “Freedom over Fear” – were copied straight onto his Twitter account.

Erin O’Toole ousted as Conservative Party leader after caucus leadership vote

It’s a pretty good bet that right now, after a week when locals in Ottawa expressed exasperation at truckers blocking off the downtown core and disrupting their daily lives, Mr. Poilievre could not get elected mayor of the city, where his riding is located. But he is the overwhelming favourite for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

He can expect donations from some of the same people who gave to the protestors – and from some of his 239,245 Twitter followers. After Mr. O’Toole, derided for being colourless and waffling over every question, Mr. Poilievre presents the swaggering political persona of someone who seems to think he knows every answer.

Whether that’s a winning persona for a general election is, of course, another question. He is a love-him-or-hate-him politician who garners tub-thumping applause from those who agree and revulsion from those who don’t. He made his name as a partisan pitbull and placed his flag on the right wing of his party. He is probably the best communicator the federal Conservatives have, but will non-partisans learn to like him?

That’s a question that gnaws at some in his party, and at some in the caucus of MPs around him, who fear that he will shrink the blue tent to a hard core, and turn off broad swaths of moderate suburban Canada. But a lot of them think he will win the leadership.

A leadership race is determined by a much smaller number of votes than federal elections are – there were roughly 269,000 Conservative members during the party’s last leadership election. And the rank and file has proven to be more conservative than the general electorate, and more motivated by hot-button issues like abortion, guns and perhaps now vaccine mandates and passports. Mr. Poilievre is their darling.

There aren’t many who can even mount a viable challenge.

Haldimand-Norfolk MP Leslyn Lewis, who had a surprisingly strong result in 2020′s leadership contest, can expect backing from an anti-abortion constituency, but no one expects her to be a contender.

After two leadership races in five years, there aren’t a lot of big names to jump in.

Conservative premiers Jason Kenney and Doug Ford have their hands full at home, and no guarantee they could win. The list of other stars is long on people who have lost their seats, or previous leaderships races, or left politics.

Some will be spooked by the picture of Peter Mackay, the putative favourite from the 2020 race, who is still trying to pay off his campaign debts. Some might fear positions they take on policy could lead to truck protests outside their homes, or at least pillorying by right-wing websites. Prominent Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel got that treatment last year for supporting trans rights.

After Mr. O’Toole took heat for running too much to the middle, candidates can expect party members will demand they pass an even more ardent test of the purity of their conservatism. Mr. Poilievre is the candidate who doesn’t have to convince them.

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