Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier waves to the crowd during the opening night of the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto on Friday, May 26, 2017. A final winner will be picked to lead the Conservative Party of Canada on Saturday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Tory leadership hopefuls make final pitches

TORONTO — The last time Conservative party faithful gathered en masse in Toronto it was to hear from former leader and prime minister Stephen Harper.

On Friday, they met in the same location, this time to hear from the 13 people vying to replace him.

Though voting has been underway for weeks and most ballots had already been cast — the winner will be announced Saturday night — some candidates still used their speeches Friday to make last-minute plays for votes.

“The key question for this leadership campaign has been which of us can take the very best of those conservative policies that we all believe in and articulate them in a way that resonates with broader Canadians?, said Andrew Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP who is among the front-runners.

“I reject the idea that in order to beat the Liberals we need to be more like them.”

Michael Chong, a rural Ontario MP and the candidate often accused during the campaign of being like a Liberal, fine-tuned his own campaign messaging during his address, dropping any mention of his carbon pricing plan that has drawn boos and jeers throughout the campaign.

Another front runner, Maxime Bernier, said not much at all, letting a video of his supporters do most of the talking as they spoke about why they back his campaign and its central focus on removing government involvement in business.

Others chose to use their remarks to appeal for the future of the party writ large.

Deepak Obhrai, the Alberta MP who is the longest serving member of the party in Parliament, said visible minorities and young Canadians must be brought into the fold, while social conservative Brad Trost said the party needs to stick to its principles.

And nearly all took clear swipes at Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, starting with none other than the event’s master of ceremonies, Caroline Mulroney.

The daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney was once rumoured to be seeking leadership herself.

“Who would want to run for the dad’s old job,?” she quipped, a dig at Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose father Pierre was also prime minister.

For their part, the Liberals also spent Friday attacking the Tories and trying to paint the party as little different than it was under Harper, saying the policies being put forward during the race were extreme.

The sparring was a preview of what awaits in the House of Commons perhaps as early as Monday, when the new leader meets with his or her caucus to rally the troops and begin the long road to the 2019 election.

The Conservatives saw themselves reduced to 99 seats in 2015 and all but shut out of urban Canada.

Among their heaviest losses were in the Toronto-area, and it was there in the waning days of the last campaign the Tories held a rally in the same centre they gathered in Friday.

The hosts? The Ford brothers – Rob, the controversial mayor of the city and his brother Doug, who used their considerable electoral clout to rally the party for the final Ontario campaign spot of 2015.

But that the notoriously tough-on-crime Harper would allow his campaign to be linked with the Fords, given Rob’s drug-using past, was seen by many at the time as an ill-conceived and last-ditch attempt to save Toronto seats.

Harper would go on to lose the election, and resign as leader, just days later.

Many candidates, however, have stood by Harper during the leadership race, taking issue not with him but with the party’s style.

Erin O’Toole said what Conservatives need isn’t a fixer, but a champion.

“We need a strong and forward-thinking leader who respects our grassroots and builds a strong team that includes all voices in all parts of the country,” he said.

Still, the populist passion the Ford brothers brought to bear that night in 2015 hasn’t dissipated entirely.

Candidate Kellie Leitch was one of several contenders for leadership who campaigned using similar populist themes; indeed, for a time her campaign manager was the same person who helped Rob Ford secure his mayoral victory.

Leitch said her campaign has shown there is an active constituency eager for a discussion of Canadian values and immigration policy, the key policy planks of her run.

“Individuals have become engaged in our Conservative party because of that issue being at the forefront,” she said in an interview.

“And I think that’s fabulous.”

The party did see its membership skyrocket in the run-up to the vote, with some ridings nearly doubling in size.

Some 259,000 people paid the required fee in order to cast a ballot, a process that’s been going on now for about a month.

Friday marked the final day to get ballots in by mail, but members can cast ballots in person on Saturday at the convention site and at polling stations across the country.

The Conservatives are using a preferential ballot, allowing members to rank up to 10 candidates.

If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote on the first count, the last-place contender is eliminated and his or her supporters’ second choices are counted. That continues until one candidate emerges with a majority.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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