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JIM VIBERT: ‘Rona watch’ still on in federal Conservative leadership race

<p>Federal Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose toured the Charlottetown waterfront Thursday during a visit to the province. During an interview with The Guardian she said she wonders why none of Atlantic Canada’s Liberal MPs are speaking out on Supreme Court seat issue</p>
Rona Ambrose, the Harper-era cabinet minister who earned a place in the hearts of Conservatives during her 18-month stint as interim leader – between Stephen Harper’s departure and Andrew Scheer’s arrival – is the front-runner who appears unlikely to run at all. - Brian McInnis

The Conservative Party of Canada is setting a high bar for potential leadership candidates, but the decision of one woman will have as much – maybe more – of an impact on the size of the field as the steep entrance fee or the required proof of significant, broad-based support.

Rona Ambrose, the Harper-era cabinet minister who earned a place in the hearts of Conservatives during her 18-month stint as interim leader – between Stephen Harper’s departure and Andrew Scheer’s arrival – is the front-runner who appears unlikely to run at all.

Reports out of Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and points west have detected organizational efforts, or at least feelers, from a number of potential and potent candidates for the job Scheer’s leaving.

While she hasn’t ruled out a bid, there are no reports of that kind of activity from a nascent Ambrose campaign.

But the so-called “Rona watch” will continue until she’s in or out. Word on that could come this week. Her presence in the race would dissuade a few would-be leaders, just as her absence will open a perceived path to victory for a few more.

A Leger poll for The Canadian Press found that Ambrose had the support of 18 per cent of voters who identify as Conservatives. While that’s not a large number, it is six points better than Peter MacKay, who polled second among likely contenders. One Conservative who matched Ambrose’s support among Conservatives, but who’s shown no interest in reclaiming the job, is Stephen Harper.

Jean Charest, the former Liberal premier of Quebec, who like MacKay once led the federal PCs, garnered support from just four per cent of the Conservatives polled but led in Quebec, where he’s backed by about 15 per cent of party loyalists.

If both MacKay and Charest enter the race, they’ll be fishing some of the same pools.

They are close friends, MacKay considers Charest a mentor and both are moderate Conservatives, although Charest’s reputation as a “red Tory” runs deeper than does MacKay’s.

In 2003, MacKay presided over the merger of the PCs with Harper’s western-based Canadian Alliance to “unite the right” and he went on to hold key cabinet posts in Harper’s governments.

Whoever wins the Conservative leadership has his or her work cut out. In December, Abacus Data research showed that the Conservative brand is less than inspiring for the majority of Canadians. The party has taken on a reputation as traditional and unambitious at a time when people are looking for bold new ideas and action on issues like climate change.

Conservative voters polled by Leger want a leader with experience who’s committed to balanced budgets. And although the sample was small, the majority of those polled favour tighter restrictions on immigration.

They don’t sound particularly amiable to Abacus Data’s findings that the party needs to refresh and renew its brand to present a more open and openminded image if it is to broaden its support among the general public enough to win an election.

While most Conservatives want, first and foremost, a leader who can win a national election, the significant socially conservative segment of the party will also be in search of a leader who shares their view or, at least, won’t sell them out.

They may find that in longtime MP and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who’s expected to enter the race with some high-profile backers, including former cabinet minister John Baird. Or they may settle for

Erin O’Toole, another Ontario Conservative, who finished third in the 2017 race that chose Scheer.

Two candidates already in the contest are Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu, who’s pro-choice and has said she won’t fight the carbon tax, and Bryan Brulotte, CEO of employment firm Max-Sys Staffing and Consulting and whose roots in the party go back more than 25 years.

The party is expected to officially release the leadership rules Monday. Undisputed reports have set the entrance fee at $300,000, up from $100,000 in 2017. Candidates will also need to gather signatures from 3,000 card-carrying Conservatives in 30 ridings across seven provinces.

In 2017, the 14 candidates who sought the leadership needed to get 300 signatures, although those also had to come from 30 ridings across seven provinces.

To win the next election – and with a minority Liberal government, it could come sooner rather than later – the party needs a leader who can appeal to more socially progressive voters, to younger voters and to Canadians who demand action on climate change.

But first, that person needs to win the leadership of a party that has a large socially conservative block, whose support comes primarily from older Canadians, and among whom climate change doesn’t even crack the top three issues.

That’s a tough needle to thread.

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