Conservative leadership contenders make pitches on policy, unity at N.S. event

OTTAWA — 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, Nova Scotia was the setting on Saturday for the debut group event of the 2020 Conservative leadership campaign.

Marilyn Gladu, Rudy Husny, Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole and Rick Peterson each made their case to the hundreds of Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives gathered for their annual convention in Halifax.

MacKay, who is from Nova Scotia, peppered his 15 minutes with myriad references to the province's history, promising a Conservative government far more respective of the federation than the current Liberals.

He appeared glad to be home after a bruising week in which his campaign was forced into damage control mode for, among other things, cutting off a reporter who asked about his social media attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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

Still, he couldn't resist a jab Saturday at Trudeau's current trip to Africa, where, MacKay said, the prime minister was engaging in a "vanity project" to get Canada a seat on the UN Security Council.

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 the 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 types 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?"

It was a theme O'Toole — who also has roots in Nova Scotia from his university days and time with the Royal Canadian Air Force — seemed to seize on in his remarks. Canadians want a government that keeps the country united, he said.

"Canadians won't believe us if we don't do that within our own party first," he said.

Gladu said the party won't win without a credible climate policy, but also needs to find a better balance between fiscal responsibility and social compassion, while standing up for everyone's rights.

"In a big tent Conservative party, that's what we do," she said.

MacKay and O'Toole are so far the only official candidates in the race, having met the first round of requirements to enter — $25,000 and 1,000 signatures that include people in 30 ridings across seven provinces and territories.

Altogether, candidates must pay a non-refundable $200,000 fee, a refundable $100,000 compliance deposit and submit 3,000 signatures.

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.

Gladu and Peterson both asked attendees for help getting their nomination forms signed, but Peterson also appeared to endorse MacKay, suggesting he will make MacKay his second choice on the ranked ballot the party uses, and he hopes others do the same.

For Husny, the event was his public debut as a potential contender. He's a longtime Quebec Conservative organizer and staffer, but said the old ways of the party need to be jettisoned.

"Our economic message is great . . . but it's not all about cutting," he said. "It's about smart spending, it's about investment, that's the message we have to tell Canadians."

Prospective candidates have until the end of February to register in the leadership race, and party members will elect the new leader on June 27.

MacKay's campaign claims to have raised $500,000 in total, and they have submitted $125,000 to the party, as well as a further instalment of 1,000 signatures.

That means 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.

He's doing it with 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."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press