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Pierre Poilievre attends a Conservative Party barbecue in Calgary, Alta., on July 9.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper’s endorsement of Pierre Poilievre for the Conservative Party leadership is a boost for the Ottawa MP that will particularly sway party members who have been on the fence about supporting him, the Conservative Senate leader says.

“So far, this is the biggest and most important endorsement,” Don Plett said in an interview on Tuesday.

But he said it’s a complicated situation. “Conservatives are strong-minded people, and if I had been a supporter of somebody else, I don’t think an endorsement like this would sway my first ballot vote. If I was on the fence, it most certainly would.”

Conservatives are now mailing in ballots in the race set to end Sept. 10, choosing among five candidates: Ontario MPs Mr. Poilievre, Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, and Roman Baber, a former Progressive Conservative member of the Ontario legislature.

Mr. Plett, who has endorsed Mr. Poilievre for the leadership, noted the leadership campaigns are focused on the Conservative membership, including tens of thousands of new members whom he suspects will have the highest regard for the former prime minister and his style of government.

Mr. Harper was the first leader of the current Conservative Party of Canada, formed in 2003 with the merger of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance. He was prime minister from 2006 until Justin Trudeau led the Liberals to victory in 2015. Mr. Harper has been the only member of the new party to serve as prime minister.

“We are not speaking to the general electorate at this point. Clearly we will on Sept. 11. Right now, [Mr. Poilievre’s] job is to become the leader, and so he’s going after the membership, and I think the membership is supportive of Stephen Harper in large part,” Mr. Plett said. “I think he’s got a good base of support and I think Stephen Harper’s support will give them, definitely, an added boost.”

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Mr. Poilievre’s campaign said it has signed up about 311,000 members in the leadership race prompted by the party’s ouster of Erin O’Toole as leader earlier this year.

The senator said he supported Mr. Poilievre from the start, but remained neutral because of his leadership position until he became exasperated with suggestions the party could not win an election under Mr. Poilievre.

Mr. Harper sat on the sidelines for two leadership races, looking on as Andrew Scheer and then Mr. O’Toole were chosen.

But that ended on Monday night, with the posting of a tweet with a brief video clip.

In it, Mr. Harper said the five candidates in the race constitute a “strong field,” but Mr. Poilievre, whom he described as a “strong minister” in his government, is the best prospect for leadership largely because of his policies, talents as a critic and his popularity among the caucus and existing and new members.

“I know, of course, that others, including some of my friends, may disagree with me, and I respect their views, but I thought you would like to know what my opinion actually is,” Mr. Harper said.

In his own tweet, Mr. Poilievre said he was proud to serve in Mr. Harper’s cabinet. “It’s a big honour to have his support in this leadership race,” his statement said.

A spokesperson for Ms. Lewis’s campaign declined comment. Representatives for Mr. Aitchison and Mr. Baber did not respond to requests for comment.

On Monday evening, Mr. Charest issued a statement calling Mr. Harper’s endorsement “a personal choice” and added he would unite the Conservative Party as Mr. Harper had done.

Former MP John Reynolds supported Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown for the leadership and shifted his support to Mr. Charest after Mr. Brown was disqualified.

He said Mr. Harper may see Mr. Poilievre as a devoted ally during his time as prime minister. “I believe he wants the next leader of the party to be one of the people on his side of the agenda when everything was happening, and I have no problem with that,” Mr. Reynolds said.

Pollster Nik Nanos said Mr. Harper’s endorsement sets the stage for the political showdown between the Liberals and Conservatives in the next federal election.

“The Harper endorsement is an acknowledgment that Poilievre is the likely leadership winner and Harper legacy inheritor,” Mr. Nanos, the chief data scientist at Nanos Research, said in a statement.

“An endorsement by Harper is a powerful signal within the Conservative movement. The same endorsement could very well fire up and mobilize progressives during the next election.”

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