Conservative leadership hopefuls make their case at party event in Halifax

Call it the Iowa of the federal Conservative leadership race.

Just as that state is the first stop on the road to the U.S. presidency, on Saturday Nova Scotia is the setting for the debut group event of the 2020 Conservative leadership campaign.

The province has played that role before. In 2017, the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party’s annual convention hosted a leadership debate — the first time all 14 people then running to lead the federal party graced the same stage.

There’s a much smaller group this time around.

Marilyn Gladu, Rudy Husny, Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole and Rick Peterson will each be making their case to the few hundred party members expected to attend. will carry the speeches live, which are scheduled to begin around 10 a.m. ET.

MacKay’s rough week

MacKay, who is from Nova Scotia, may feel some relief being back on home turf after a bruising week.

His campaign was forced into damage-control mode when it appeared he was waffling on party policy in support of moving the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and for cutting off a reporter asking questions about his social media attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Those questions came as MacKay was saying he wanted to run a more civil campaign.

Finding a balance between getting attention and not turning off voters is a challenge in a leadership race, said Dennis Matthews, a vice-president at communications firm Enterprise, who previously spearheaded Conservative ad campaigns.

“All the candidates need to think of the end voter here, and the image and the brand they are building — what does a suburban mom think of this all? It’s not that they are voting today, but they ultimately will,” he said.

“And so how do you build something that can attract those type of voters at the end, recognizing that Conservative members are different than the public, that they are going to have more of an appetite for the sharp attacks. How do you get that balance right?”

What made the 2017 event in Nova Scotia especially notable was that it was the first to feature celebrity businessman Kevin O’Leary as an official candidate, as he’d only just formally entered the race after musing about a possible bid for a year.

His potential front-runner status was evident — most candidates openly attacked him.

This time around, candidates need to think about that strategy too, Matthews said.

“In the U.S. race, for Democrats, there’s not a lot of appetite for attacking each other, because they see Trump is the ultimate target,” he said.

“In Canada, Trudeau is the ultimate focus for the campaign … if you get into ad hominem attacks on each other, I think that could fall flat very quickly.”

O’Leary eventually dropped out, saying he didn’t have the support required in Quebec.

His rapid rise and fall, and the oxygen it sucked up, was part of the reason the contest this time has a higher bar of entry — $300,000, and 3,000 signatures, a third of which must include signatories from 30 ridings in seven provinces and territories.

So far, only MacKay and O’Toole have met the early stages of those requirements, and are official candidates.

Not all candidates in attendance

Saturday’s event was open to all prospective candidates, so long as they paid a $1,000 fee to the Nova Scotia PC Party for costs.

Candidates who’ve chosen not to appear include Richard Decarie, whose comments opposing same-sex marriage have been a flashpoint in the nascent race; Aron Seal, a former political staffer who says he wants to focus on recruiting new members and Derek Sloan, also running under the social conservative banner. His team says they missed the deadline for registering for the event.

For Husny, who is from Quebec and has spent years working for the party in government and Opposition, Saturday is a chance to introduce himself to a new pocket of the country. Though he’s submitted the first $25,000 and the application, he’s still trying to get the first 1,000 signatures he needs.

“I want to bring generational change to our party, to our politics and to our country,” he said in an email.

As other candidates continue to try and meet the first of the race’s requirements, MacKay has blown past the pack. His campaign claims to have raised $500,000 in total, submitting $125,000 to the party so far. It also claims to have a further instalment of 1,000 signatures.

In turn, he’s met the threshold to receive a copy of the party’s membership list, and can begin directly targeting card-carrying Conservatives to scoop up their votes.

MacKay may desire a more civil campaign, but he’s got a team known for a pugilistic approach to politics. That includes Michael Diamond, one of the architects of Doug Ford’s victory in the Ontario PC leadership.

While O’Toole will get the membership list eventually, he has access to another list: data hoovered up by the past online advocacy efforts of one of his senior campaign team members, Jeff Ballingall. His Canada and Ontario Proud campaigns are known for their attention-grabbing approaches using provocative images and videos.

There’s a reason both camps hired tough teams, Matthews said.   

“If you look at O’Toole and Peter Mackay, on the surface they are a lot more similar than people care to admit,” he said.

“You’re drawn into finding distinctions between the two to win over supporters and because of that, you’re going to go down this sharper, edgier path because there’s a big prize at the end of this and people will fight hard for it.”

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