HALIFAX – They’ve slagged him in interviews and on the Internet, but the crowded field vying to lead the federal Conservatives is finally going head-to-head with the rookie everyone says is the man to beat: celebrity businessman Kevin O’Leary.
O’Leary only formally joined the competition after the last leadership debate, his timing an effort to avoid making his debut during a French-only event — despite having been born in Quebec, he speaks little of that language.
That makes tonight’s debate in Halifax, hosted by the provincial PC party, the first time O’Leary will appear alongside most of the other 13 candidates in the race; only Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai is not taking part.
O’Leary, whose nascent political career has been likened to that of U.S. President Donald Trump, is sure to face comparisons after a tumultuous week in American politics.
But rivals will have to tread carefully: like Trump himself, there’s a sense with O’Leary that his perceived political weaknesses may actually turn out to be strengths.
Observers and candidates alike will be watching for evidence of his instincts and ability to think on his feet — especially after the tone-deaf timing of Thursday’s attempt at a little guns-and-ammo showmanship.
A playful video clip of O’Leary blasting away with a variety of automatic weapons at a Miami gun range surfaced just as a funeral was getting underway in Montreal for three of the six victims of last weekend’s deadly mosque shooting in Quebec City.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale described the timing of the video as “obviously crass, insensitive and exceedingly dumb.”
There’s no denying, however, that his campaign has financial firepower.
O’Leary’s campaign claims to have signed up 9,000 members and raised $300,000 in the first 10 days he was in the race. It took Kellie Leitch, whose focus on immigration reform has also elicited comparisons to Trump, three months to raise that much.
The debate is being moderated by Rob Moore, a former Tory MP who serves as the federal party’s shadow critic for Atlantic issues despite losing his House of Commons seat in 2015, when the Conservatives were wiped out in eastern Canada.
Rebuilding the party’s support there is seen as crucial for the party. Two leadership candidates — Erin O’Toole and Lisa Raitt — have both played up their East Coast roots in launching their respective leadership bids.
Raitt has also been one of the most outspoken critics of O’Leary’s decision to join the race.
Well before he officially declared himself in the race, she launched a website specifically to highlight what she considers reasons he’s wrong for the party and for the country.
Raitt has also come out strongly against Leitch, whose contentious policy of screening immigrants for “Canadian values” was back in the news this past week. A banner listing the names of the Quebec mosque victims was draped over her constituency office with a call for her to resign.