Conservative leadership debate in Edmonton the latest to showcase political manoeuvring

The debates have given Conservative leadership candidates an opportunity to present their platforms, but their strategies for winning the race have also been on display.

2nd choices, regional support and new members — Tory candidates are showing their cards

Maxime Bernier was one of 13 candidates at the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton on Tuesday, in a sparring match that continued to feature the political manoeuvring that has dominated previous debates. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

The Conservative leadership debates have not featured any of the mythical knockout punches that are supposed to win elections, but the subtle (and not so subtle) manoeuvring that will help decide the outcome has been on full display — most recently during Tuesday night's event in Edmonton.

And that includes Kevin O'Leary's decision to skip it.

Since the first official debate in Saskatoon on Nov. 9, the candidates have been up against each other 11 times. The party will hold one more official debate, and more local events are likely to be organized.

After so many sparring matches, candidates have little new to present to members. Still, the debates have showcased some candidates' strategies for navigating the campaign's voting rules.

The rules give equal weight to each of Canada's 338 ridings, regardless of the number of members per riding, and each member is allowed to rank up to 10 candidates on a preferential ballot.

Candidates are also asking themselves the larger strategic question of whether to focus on current members or attempt to bring new people into the party.

The hunt for second choices

With a preferential ballot and 14 candidates, being members' second or third choice is almost as valuable as being their first.

In Edmonton, when some of the other candidates were dismissing Michael Chong's climate change plan (Andrew Scheer compared it to the "tooth fairy"), Erin O'Toole spoke against the Liberal government's carbon pricing plan instead. O'Toole, running as a centrist, consensus candidate, cannot afford to alienate Chong's voters, who hail from the progressive wing of the Conservative Party.

At the Manning Conference in Ottawa on Friday, Lisa Raitt, who explicitly asked for second or third preference support in Edmonton, took Maxime Bernier to task on the issue of supply management. Bernier wants to abolish it. 

The defence of supply management has been a focus of Steven Blaney's campaign, but his support seems to be largely confined to his home province of Quebec — where Raitt, who has difficulty speaking French, has limited appeal. Securing the second or third spot on the ballot of Blaney's supporters would help her considerably.

Lisa Raitt, also among leadership contenders on the stage in Edmonton, took Maxime Bernier to task on the issue of supply management during the debate in Ottawa last week. (The Canadian Press / Codie McLachlan)

But Blaney may do well on the first ballot due to his concentration of support in Quebec, where few candidates other than Bernier appear to have strong support. The province's 78 ridings will award 23 per cent of all the points in the race, so Blaney could put up strong numbers even if his support in the rest of the country is slim.

So Blaney needs to be the second choice of members outside Quebec. But he will only benefit if those members' first choice drops off the ballot first.

This could explain why, in the Vancouver debate on Feb. 19, Blaney introduced Chris Alexander. In Ottawa and Edmonton, he complimented both Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, and commended Deepak Obhrai on his participation in the debate in Quebec City despite his poor French-language skills.

These are all candidates who could drop off the ballot before Blaney and their supporters could propel him up the rankings.

Securing the lead

Bernier, who is leading the field in fundraising, might not need second-choice support to push him to the top of the list — but he will need it to keep him there.

Accordingly, Bernier took the time in both the Ottawa and Edmonton debates to emphasize how he would allow his MPs greater freedom, including putting forward bills and motions in the House of Commons on issues like abortion.

This is a direct invitation for the supporters of social conservative candidates like Trost and Lemieux (along with Scheer, though that is not a focus of his campaign) to rank Bernier highly — despite being considered "not supportable," due to his voting record, by the Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion advocacy group.

Bernier also took pains in Ottawa to criticize the equalization formula's accounting of the resource sector, which could help shore up his support in Western Canada.

Attacking the front runners

Kellie Leitch, who is second in fundraising, has increasingly become a target of attacks from some of her rivals. This is usually a signal that the other campaigns see a candidate as a frontrunner. But it might also be an indication that attacking Leitch, who has high negatives among Conservative voters, is seen as a means of attracting support from members who oppose her candidacy.

In Ottawa, Leitch was criticized on health care by Alexander and O'Toole, while in the debates in Langley, B.C., on Feb. 18 and in Edmonton on Tuesday, her plan to screen immigrants for "Canadian values" was dismissed by Alexander, Chong and Rick Peterson.

Kellie Leitch has become a target of attacks from other Conservative leadership contenders. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

In Edmonton, Leitch and Blaney were critical of Bernier — the frontrunner of those on the stage.

​But the main target of attacks in the debates he has participated in has been O'Leary. The businessman and television personality, however, has not taken the bait. He has avoided going after the other candidates and limited his criticisms to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, largely ignoring the rest of the Conservative field.

This plays into his campaign's strategy of signing new members to the party. Having the highest profile — by a wide margin — he could afford to skip the Edmonton debate, where he would have faded into the crowd of 14 candidates on the stage.

His opponents recognized this. Not needing to give him any more attention, he was not mentioned by name throughout the Edmonton debate.

Still, O'Leary does appear to have recognized that he might need the support of current party members. After telling the audience of the Pointe-Claire, Que., debate on Feb. 13 that they would need to "get used to" changing social values, O'Leary mentioned in Ottawa that his would be a "big tent" party, including Conservatives with an array of different views.

The debate in Pointe-Claire also demonstrated O'Leary's shaky French — a weakness he avoided showcasing again by staying off the Edmonton stage.

With Quebec holding the weight in this race, that might have played into his political calculations. If that were the case, though, he didn't need to worry — this bilingual debate was held almost entirely in English.

Deepak Obhrai speaks during the debate. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.