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Supporters take their seats during the opening night of the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto on May 26, 2017.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Erin O’Toole is running to lead the Conservative Party, while Peter MacKay is running to lead the country. Advantage, MacKay.

The Durham MP and the former foreign and defence minister are the two front-running candidates for the party leadership, to be decided in August. Mr. O’Toole released a campaign platform Wednesday with proposals that are both innovative – developing small nuclear reactor technology for use in remote areas – and controversial – defunding and then privatizing CBC television. But it’s the subtitle of the platform that matters: A Call to Take Back Canada.

“Take Back Canada” fits with the larger O’Toole message. Over the past month, his tweets have savaged China, slagged the World Health Organization and called for domesticating supply chains.

One video message condemns “chasing the approval of global elites," castigates "corrupt foreign governments and incompetent global institutions,” and declares “Canada must come first.”

This Canada First message is aimed at those ultrapartisan Conservatives who think U.S. President Donald Trump is doing a fine job, despite all the fake news about him in the lamestream media. But it’s a hard message to take to the suburban middle-class voters who decide Canadian elections.

Meanwhile, Mr. MacKay is softening, rather than hardening, his message. One slickly produced video has him and his wife, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, seated on a bench in a sylvan park, offering a message of comfort and hope to everyone affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For manufactured sincerity, the spot beats anything Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pulled off.

There is a reason for the contrasting approaches.

Although reliable data – which team sold the most memberships, who is better organized in places like Quebec – are hard to come by, conversations with informed Conservatives paint a picture of a race that is still too close to call, but that may be trending in Mr. MacKay’s favour.

The man who, along with Stephen Harper, forged the union of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance into the successful Conservative Party, always had the advantage of being well known and well liked by Conservatives and the broader public. He had money and endorsements, and in the winter seemed a prohibitive favourite.

But one stumble after another plagued the MacKay campaign. In particular, he alienated the social conservative wing by calling it a “stinking albatross” around outgoing Leader Andrew Scheer’s neck during the previous election campaign, and urging Conservatives to “park” the socon message in order to win power.

The MacKay campaign seemed bewildered, tone deaf, rusty. Mr. O’Toole, on the other hand, is running a focused campaign that seeks to make him the second choice of social conservatives whose first choice is lawyer Leslyn Lewis or rookie MP Derek Sloan. The O’Toole camp knows Mr. MacKay will lead on the first ballot, but hopes that once Ms. Lewis and Mr. Sloan are forced out in subsequent rounds, most of those votes will come to Mr. O’Toole, attracted to his Canada First message.

As I wrote in May, that may well happen. But the strategy comes with a cost. The pandemic has produced a temporary suspension of partisan politics. Mr. Trudeau and the premiers have worked together to fight the disease, with Canadians broadly supporting their policies to contain the pandemic and the crippling economic recession it produced.

Mr. O’Toole must ignore all that, as he seeks to consolidate support among the party’s right wing, the Tories who call the Prime Minister “Trudope” on Twitter and in the comment threads.

Mr. MacKay, knowing that those voters are lost to him, has decided to play statesman-in-waiting, which is a far better fit with the general public mood. His campaign may also have sold enough new memberships that the team is convinced he will win on the first ballot.

The leadership campaign has united the party on several policy fronts: the need for Canada to disengage from China; the need to onshore supply chains in areas of national security, the need to gradually shift focus from protecting against disease to protecting jobs.

Those three points could form the basis of a strong Conservative message in the next election. The question is how to sell it: with Mr. O’Toole’s Canada First belligerence or with Mr. MacKay seated on a park bench.

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Editor’s note: (June 11, 2020) An earlier version of this article included an incorrect first name for Mr. Sloan.