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Peter MacKay addresses the crowd at a federal Conservative leadership forum in Halifax on Feb. 8, 2020.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Nine candidates are expected to make it through the first hurdle of the Conservative leadership race, setting the stage for a four-month campaign to replace Andrew Scheer in June.

The two well-known candidates are ex-cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, who is also an MP. The lesser-known candidates include four social conservatives former political staffer Richard Décarie, MP Derek Sloan, lawyer Leslyn Lewis and political activist Jim Karahalios. Other contenders are MP Marilyn Gladu, former political staffer Rudy Husny and businessman Rick Peterson.

Backlash to a comment made by Mr. Décarie earlier this year that being gay is a "choice” and the will-they-or-won’t-they speculation about high-profile conservatives who all ultimately backed out of the race have so far dominated the contest.

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Mr. Karahalios, a party activist who gained a following within the Conservative movement for his “axe the carbon tax” campaign, was formally accepted into the race this week. In an interview Thursday, Mr. Karahalios said he got into the race because he didn’t see a “viable blue-Tory, grassroots conservative" in it.

The Campaign Life Coalition supports Mr. Karahalios’s candidacy. He confirmed he is anti-abortion and called questions about his participation in Pride parades a “red-Tory litmus test question that’s exclusionary,” but said he wouldn’t walk in those parades or any others. He disputed the need for the question, but when pressed on it representing a larger question of support for LGBTQ rights, he said “if anyone knows about persecution in politics it’s me.”

The persecution Mr. Karahalios said he was referring to was a lawsuit launched against him by the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, which is alleged he misused the party’s membership list. The case was dismissed in court and called “frivolous and vexatious” by the party’s then interim leader.

Mr. Karahalios refused to say whether he supports same-sex marriage, saying that official party policy doesn’t take a position on it.

Seven candidates have been formally accepted into the race, while the campaigns for Mr. Husny and Mr. Décarie say they have submitted all the necessary information and expect to be confirmed as well. The deadline was midnight Thursday.

The leadership race requires candidates to hit increasingly stringent fundraising and support numbers to stay in the competition. The first phase required candidates to collect 1,000 signatures from at least 30 ridings in seven provinces and territories and $25,000. The candidates are then vetted by the party’s leadership committee before their position is confirmed.

To make the final ballot, each candidate has to raise $300,000 and collect 3,000 signatures by March 25. The party confirmed Thursday Mr. MacKay had already met that threshold.

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The leadership committee’s co-chair Dan Nowlan said the fundraising and support numbers were set to ensure the final candidates have a “real shot" and could credibly become prime minister.

The high bar means likely half of the current candidates will fall off, Conservative strategist Kate Harrison said. While she said it would take a “big shake up” to knock either Mr. MacKay or Mr. O’Toole from their front-runner status, she expects at least one social conservative candidate to outperform expectations.

Mr. O’Toole, an Ontario MP who placed third in the 2017 leadership race, has positioned his campaign to the right of Mr. MacKay and framed his former colleague as Liberal lite. Ms. Harrison, who is also a vice-president at Summa Strategies, said “there’s some skepticism over how credibly [Mr. O’Toole is] going to sell that message.”

Two other candidates were still trying to get their applications in under the wire on Thursday night, on Friday the party confirmed no other applications were submitted.

The party announced this week the final candidates will be required to participate in an English debate on April 17 in Toronto and a French debate on April 23 in Montreal. The Conservatives will elect their leader to replace Mr. Scheer on June 27.

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