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Erin O’Toole seems like the forgotten man of the Conservative leadership race.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It’s hard to imagine that Erin O’Toole doesn’t take all of this as an insult.

There is palpable angst among a subset of Conservatives who feel their party’s leadership race is turning into a coronation for a front-runner, Peter MacKay, that they see as unconvincing or even bumbling – so much so that they keep pleading for some other candidate to run.

Yet, few of those moaning Tories talk about Mr. O’Toole as that candidate.

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The Durham MP, after all, came third in the previous leadership race, behind departing leader Andrew Scheer and second-place Maxime Bernier, who quit the Conservatives to found a fringe party. Mr. O’Toole is not some rookie MP or unelected party apparatchik. So he has a decent case that he is next in the line of contenders – or at least, first in line to take on Mr. MacKay.

But no. The talk has been about desperate efforts to get somebody else into the race. Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre dropped out. Rona Ambrose couldn’t be arm-twisted into running. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney floated the name of former foreign affairs minister John Baird, who told a TV interviewer on Sunday that he’s thinking about it – without sounding like he meant it. Still, there was buzz around Mr. Baird’s name.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Toole seems like the forgotten man of the Conservative leadership race.

That is despite the fact that he looks the most likely to give Mr. MacKay a race. One big problem is that Mr. O’Toole is way, way behind on name recognition. And you can expect Mr. MacKay’s team to use a front-runner’s strategy: They will roll him up in bubble wrap and try to steer him cautiously through the campaign without saying much.

If Mr. O’Toole is going to have a shot, he’ll have to garner notice. Oddly enough, that means he should start talking about policy.

That’s odd because leadership races aren’t usually about policy ideas. They are about raising money and organizing. But even so, Mr. MacKay’s fame – by Canadian political standards – gives him a substantial edge.

It might be less of an advantage among Conservative Party members, who should be more likely to recall the names of Tory MPs and former ministers, than it is among the general public. But it is still an advantage. For proof, look back to the previous Conservative leadership race, when TV personality Kevin O’Leary entered the race with no political experience, ability to speak French or clear idea of Canadian politics – and became the front-runner (before eventually dropping out).

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Mr. MacKay’s team will try to play it safe. One of their biggest blunders so far came in a CTV interview that was supposed to highlight Mr. MacKay’s link to a youth-advocacy centre – an interview The Globe and Mail turned down – when they halted the interview because a reporter dared to ask about a campaign tweet. It’s a good bet the rest of the campaign will be photo ops and scripted events that revolve around the theme that Canada is good and Justin Trudeau is bad.

That means Mr. O’Toole, and any other contender, has to try to seize attention before it’s too late. That’s tricky. But one way is policy.

So far, Mr. O’Toole has been positioning himself. He has called himself a true-blue Conservative, casting Mr. MacKay as “Liberal lite” even though there hadn’t previously been a lot of daylight between their political orientations. Mr. O’Toole has been going around saying that if he becomes leader, there will be no more hyphenated conservatives – which is supposed to appeal to social conservatives.

But if he wants to get noticed, he might want to steal a page from Mr. Bernier’s playbook – the part that made Mr. Bernier a leadership front-runner in 2017, not the part where he adopted anti-immigration populism that he previously rejected and crashed his political career into a tree.

Mr. Bernier became a front-runner by proposing policies that got Conservatives’ attention – eliminating supply management, slashing government spending and so on – that moulded a perception among Conservatives that he had his own distinctive identity. Of course, the failing was that, in the end, he turned off a lot of party members, too. But Mr. O’Toole’s first challenge is making his name known before Mr. MacKay walks off with the race.

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