Leadership races gears up as Tories plan convention-floor tribute to Harper

Like Stephen Harper's favourite band the Beatles once sang — you say goodbye, and I say hello.

OTTAWA — Like Stephen Harper’s favourite band the Beatles once sang — you say goodbye, and I say hello.

This spring’s Conservative party policy convention will feature a farewell tribute to the former party leader and prime minister to close the books on the Harper era and signal to party members it is time to accept the lessons learned in last fall’s vote and move on.

That includes kicking off the race to replace him earnest.

There are a dozen names in the mix already but two are expected to formally declare their candidacies as early as this week — Quebec MP Maxime Bernier and Ontario MP Kellie Leitch.

Both have made no secret of their leadership ambitions, with Bernier setting up a website and printing T-shirts ahead of a conservative conference in February and Leitch criss-crossing the country, collecting signatures, volunteers and money to help back her bid.

Others contemplating a run include MPs Andrew Scheer, Jason Kenney, Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement and Michael Chong.

Clement said he has not yet made up his mind about whether he will in fact run and doesn’t see the convention as a tipping point.

“I have my own time schedule,” he told The Canadian Press. “I feel no pressure at this point.”

But other Conservatives have told The Canadian Press they think the convention is a natural starting point where hopefuls should make it clear whether or not they intend to run, if for no other reason than to be fair to the other candidates.

It’s also a matter of strategy — is a candidate’s focus going to be on courting existing party members or signing up new ones?

“If one of your strategies is to convert existing members because you feel they will come out and vote in a more consistent way than new members you might bring, then you may want to announce before or during the convention,” said Michele Austin, who has worked for both interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and Bernier.

While the convention may be a starting point, the leadership vote will still be a year away at that point.

Most memberships are only sold for a single year, so anyone signing up new party members before May 27 will have to sign them up again next year or convince them to buy two-year party memberships.

There’s also the matter of the broader political landscape, said former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore, once rumoured to be eyeing a leadership bid but who says it is not in the cards now.

The issues that are top of mind now when it comes to considering the best next prime minister may be different a year from now, he said.

Global security, the economy, or some surprise issue could suddenly see a desire for a particular candidate emerge, he said.

“At the last minute, people could get pushed into running,” he said.

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