The PC leadership sprint begins

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National Post, Monday, June 15, 2009

The Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race is about segments and market share of the political spectrum.

Christine Elliott has emerged as the frontrunner because she has successfully defined and occupied the most space. She has a lock on the party's Red Tory wing, is the lone centrist and is working the centre-right with policies such as her popular proposal for a flat-tax.

This is her competitive advantage over her opponents, three white guys all fishing out of the right side of the boat. Frank Klees, a smooth operator reminiscent of a younger Ernie Eves, is on the centre-right and trying to crowd Elliott for pragmatic centrists. Tim Hudak, who was the early front-runner, is the anointed candidate of the Mike Harris wing of the party -- right wing and ideological about it. And Randy Hillier represents the rural libertarian branch of the party. He is all about property rights, abolishing the provincial human rights commission and so on. You name it and the true believers can find it in his program.

An Ipsos poll of Conservatives recently put Elliott in the lead at 35%, with clear separation back to the other three, who were bunched together within the margin of error in the mid-20s.

While he may be beyond the fringe, Hillier certainly provides top entertainment value, and rocked the house with laughter, cheers and jeers Wednesday night at the final candidates' debate at the University of Ottawa. On health care, he said, "It's easier for my dog to get treated than my son." He would abolish the Human Rights Commission "because it stifles free speech." As for what differentiates his candidacy from the others: "Unlike some others, I offer solutions and not just platitudes." His landowners' claque in the overflow crowd loved it all.

For Klees, "the ballot question is which of the four candidates is best equipped to win the next election." He would "restore this great province to the greatness it once had." Echoes of John Robarts and Bill Davis. Some of the party's best operatives -- such as his campaign chair, John Capobianco, and his communications director, Sandra Buckler -- are in his camp. He certainly looks the part of an Ontario premier; the question is whether he can play the part.

To Hudak, the present economic plight is a major issue. "Who in this room," he asked, "ever imagined that Ontario would be a have-not province?" But the laying on of hands from Harris is a mixed blessing. While Harris won consecutive majorities in 1995 and 1999 and brought the Common Sense Revolution to Ontario, he also brought thousands into the streets to protest cutbacks in health and education, as well as municipal mergers dictated from Queen's Park. Hudak's wife, Deb Hutton, was a hard-nosed political aide to Harris who influenced a lot of people without making any friends.

As Elliott politely pointed out, nostalgia for the Harris era is misplaced, and belongs to another century.

There's one more debate with Steve Paikin on TVO on Thursday, but after Wednesday's final regional debate, the positioning phase of the campaign is essentially over. This is the air game, about definition and differentiation, not to mention earned media coverage. Elliott has clearly won this phase of the campaign -- her personal narrative, as the mother of triplet sons, one of whom has special needs, is quite compelling and substantiates her calls for "compassionate conservatism" and community activism.

Her marriage to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty makes her part of an interesting power couple, and would make for curious conversations at the breakfast table over issues such as the EI funding threshold for Ontario. "They'll just have to change it," she says flatly, in a tone heard in all marriages when the wife has made up her mind, and there is simply no further point in discussing it.

The election will employ a preferential ballot in two stages, on June 21 and 25 in all 106 ridings across the province -- the winner to be announced on June 27. The final phase of this 100-day leadership sprint is all about GOTV -- get out the vote -- for the first ballot, and alliances for the second, after the fourth place finisher is eliminated. Hillier is almost certain to go to Hudak, who supports him on abolishing the HRC. Klees would have a more likely affinity with Elliott, as she would with him in the event she stumbled.

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