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Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, seen in December, says he won't be running for the leadership this year. REUTERS/Blair Gable

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Prominent Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre, considered a front-runner in the Conservative leadership race, has decided to bow out of the competition.

The announcement made late Thursday stunned Conservatives and dramatically shifted the dynamics in a race that has seen several changes this week.

“I knew it would be hard on my family life to do this. But I did not realize how hard,” Mr. Poilievre said in a social-media post.

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He was set to formally announce his leadership bid in Ottawa on Sunday and had already organized a campaign team.

“Without being all in, I cannot be in at all,” Mr. Poilievre said in his statement.

His surprise decision came less than a day after his campaign confirmed the details of his launch. In addition to campaign chair John Baird and Quebec organizer Senator Leo Housakos, Mr. Poilievre had the support of several other high-profile Conservatives including Jenni Byrne, who was a senior aide to both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Poilievre’s exit follows two other high-profile candidates who confirmed this week they also won’t seek the leadership. On Tuesday, former Quebec premier Jean Charest said he would sit the race out and former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose announced the same decision on Wednesday.

Unlike Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Charest, though, there had been – until now – no doubt that Mr. Poilievre would run and he was expected to be the main challenger to Peter MacKay. His exit creates an easier path to victory for the former cabinet minister and Progressive Conservative party leader. Unless another high-profile name enters the race, Mr. MacKay’s main challenger will be Ontario MP Erin O’Toole.

In a brief statement, Mr. O’Toole called Mr. Poilievre a “champion for our party and the conservative movement.”

Mr. O’Toole has not yet announced his formal campaign launch. Mr. MacKay is making his bid official in Stellarton, N.S., on Saturday.

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announced in December he would resign after a disappointing October election result. The Conservatives are set to elect a new leader on June 27 in Toronto.

Ontario MPs Marilyn Gladu and Derek Sloan are also organizing campaigns.

The 2017 Conservative leadership race was criticized for having a crowded field with 14 candidates. But with the three high-profile exits this week, there’s concern that there won’t be enough competition this time around.

“Having different voices within the party represented in the race is important for the future of the party. I don’t think that members would be satisfied with the coronation of one candidate," Conservative strategist Kate Harrison said Thursday.

While prominent names are dropping out, three relatively unknown social conservatives confirmed this week they will take a run at the top job. They include Mr. Sloan, along with veteran party organizer Richard Décarie and Toronto-area lawyer Leslyn Lewis.

The party though is already facing calls to disqualify Mr. Décarie over comments he made to CTV, in which he said being gay is a choice.

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MP Todd Doherty said on Twitter “ignorant rhetoric on issues of human rights should disqualify someone.” Conservative strategist Melissa Lantsman voiced similar comments, saying “the party has blocked candidates for much less."

Candidates who make it onto the ballot must be vetted by the party’s leadership committee, collect 3,000 signatures and raise $300,000 by March 25. So far no candidate has formally started that process.

Among the requirements of a candidate is that they support the party’s principles, which include a “belief in the equality of all Canadians.”

Conservative Party spokesperson Cory Hann said in a statement support for the principles are “not just a preference but rather a requirement.”

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