Conservative Leadership Hopefuls Eye Election

FOR ALL THE TALK about how attractive Belinda Stronach is, her campaign launch for the CONSERVATIVE leadership was not pretty.

Conservative Leadership Hopefuls Eye Election

FOR ALL THE TALK about how attractive Belinda Stronach is, her campaign launch for the CONSERVATIVE leadership was not pretty. She was too wooden to do justice to her slickly crafted speech, too wary to let the considerable charm she's reputed to wield in private shine through when she faced the media afterwards. But, then, the aim of the political coming-out party in her hometown, Aurora, Ont., just north of Toronto, was to present her as a potential winner, not merely winsome. And to accomplish that, as her wily campaign director John Laschinger explained to Maclean's, the top priority was to quell the speculation that Stronach might be all personality and no policy. So she offered a series of precise positions, from proposing partial mortgage tax deductibility to supporting gay marriage. Suddenly, there was content in what had seemed an empty, though intriguing, vessel. Mission accomplished - at least partly.

Taking on the conventional wisdom that Stronach lacked ideas at the very outset was classic Laschinger strategy. "Initially in a campaign," he said, "you've got to go to weakness." That's why for Stronach's next big speech, Laschinger sent her to Calgary - home turf of the front-runner, Stephen HARPER. No use giving critics time to talk up the Ontario rookie's lack of a western base. Counter perceived weakness first. Build strength later. These early moves left no doubt the Magna International Inc. car parts heiress had assembled an eminently professional campaign machine. Harper tipped his hat to it, declaring that her bid had to be taken seriously - but he couched the compliment in a warning to Conservatives. "A very real challenge this party faces," he said shortly after Stronach's launch, "is that the new leader will have to be prepared to run a national election, in all likelihood two weeks after the leadership race is over."

Harper's most persuasive campaign literature may turn out to be the calendar. Conservatives will vote for their first leader on March 20; Prime Minister Paul Martin is widely expected to call an election early in April. That would leave no lull during which the new leader could make the transition from appealing to party members, to the very different challenge of vying for votes from Canadians at large. No time for messages to be reworked, images refined, party operations reorganized. So assessing how Harper, Stronach and Tony Clement, the stolid former Ontario cabinet minister who rounds out the leadership field, stack up against each other isn't really the task at hand. What matters is how ready they look to take on the formidable Martin.

Harper makes the case that he's best positioned to hit the ground running. As former Alliance leader, he has national experience to go with his roots in the party's crucial western strongholds. Although Stronach makes much of having run Magna for three years, growing up Frank Stronach's daughter isn't enough to build a political career on. Her campaign will have to be fuelled more by who she is than what she's done. She's a woman, and winning over women voters has proven difficult for right-of-centre parties. She's from Ontario, where the Conservatives long for a breakthrough. And she's young, just 37, which Laschinger drew particular attention to when asked to sum up her potential appeal against the 65-year-old Martin: "A woman who is in her 30s against a guy who was born in the thirties."

Laschinger hopes the Stronach package adds up to excitement. "There's a thirst for this in Canadian society," he declares. Maybe so, but with excitement comes risk. Many Conservatives remember all too well past experiments with thrill-seeking: former Canadian Alliance members shudder through Stockwell Day flashbacks, and one-time Progressive Conservatives have their Kim Campbell nightmares. The coolly analytical Harper undeniably looks safer. As well, his western credibility could be critical, given strong recent Liberal poll results across the West. Clement is even less likely to set pulses racing. The former health minister in Ontario's Conservative government, who lost his seat in the October provincial election, is positioning himself as a bridge-builder between the new federal party's mutually suspicious Tory and Alliance factions, inoffensive to both.

One tricky factor to assess is the novel preferential ballot that will be used in the March 20 vote. Party members will rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate is the first choice of more than 50 per cent, then the same ballots will be counted again. This time, though, the candidate who got the lowest number of first-place choices will be dropped. The remaining two then pick up their second-place finishes on the eliminated candidate's ballots. That opens the possibility of a compromise candidate winning - the one who garnered the most of those No. 2 picks. What does that mean tactically? "You've got to be nice to everybody," Laschinger said. Get ready for an uncommonly polite campaign.

Maclean's February 2, 2004