Conservative leadership race enters home stretch, minus O’Leary

WATCH LIVE: Kevin O'Leary withdrawal from Conservative leadership race draws applause from audience at Conservative debate

With 14 debates and a record-setting 259,000 memberships now logged in the history books, the Conservative leadership race has entered the home stretch.

Exactly one month from tomorrow in Toronto, the votes will be tallied and the party that has only ever known one permanent leader — Stephen Harper  — will decide who is best suited to guide it into the next federal election, and possibly beyond.

READ MORE: Conservative rivals O’Toole, Leitch following divergent paths to leadership

The contest thus far has been weighed down by a stubbornly bloated field of candidates, accusations of thinly veiled attempts to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment, and even alleged vote-rigging.

Before his shock departure from the race Wednesday, front-runner Kevin O’Leary had drawn criticism for failing to even show up to several debates.

In other words, it has not been a smooth ride.

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Conservative leadership candidate Rick Peterson takes aim at PM, pot
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As the leadership hopefuls got set for their final debate on Wednesday night, experts say the challenge for those left standing will be to build name recognition in the final four weeks of the campaign, while attracting enough broad support within the party to ensure victory.

“One of the things that [O’Leary] managed to do was to bring a measure of star power that cuts through the clutter and potentially competes with Justin Trudeau, and that is just so difficult for the other candidates to achieve,” said Alex Marland, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

“Unless you follow politics, you don’t know who these people are.”

Even Quebec MP and former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, now the presumptive front-runner with O’Leary’s endorsement, still isn’t widely recognized across the country, Marland noted.

READ MORE: Kevin O’Leary drops out of Conservative leadership race

Whoever wins on May 27 will immediately need to start reaching out and connecting with Canadians if the Conservatives have any hope of forming government in 2019, he said.

“I know a lot of people who voted for the Liberals and Justin Trudeau because Justin Trudeau had a brand-name recognition to him. They never picked up the Liberal Party of Canada platform.”

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Courting votes

According to Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, it’s fairly unlikely we’ll see more dropouts like O’Leary before May 27.

“They’ve already put up their money, so why should they drop out now? I don’t know. They don’t have anything to gain,” he said.

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With O’Leary out, Bernier may now have a sufficiently strong lead to win, Wiseman predicted, but there are a lot of variables to consider.

Ranked ballots, for instance, mean that being the second (or even third) choice for a majority of members may be more useful than being the first choice for a smaller slice of the party.

And then there’s turnout. The Conservatives say they have 259,010 paid members who are eligible to vote — a stunning increase of over 150,000 members since the beginning of January. But in the 2004 race that saw Stephen Harper claim the leadership, only a third of the membership actually cast a ballot.

It’s unclear if the turnout will be any higher this time around, Wiseman said.

WATCH: Kevin O’Leary drops out of Conservative leadership race

Kevin O’Leary drops out of Conservative leadership race + insight into Trump negotiating tactics
Kevin O’Leary drops out of Conservative leadership race + insight into Trump negotiating tactics

If that weren’t enough, there is yet another layer of complexity. The party’s electoral system means that ridings — not individual votes — matter most.

Each riding across Canada is worth 100 points, and its those points that are ultimately tallied to decide the winner. Many ridings have just a handful of Conservative members, while others may have thousands upon thousands. They are all weighted equally at 100 points, so a savvy candidate will go after the ones that require convincing 14 people — not 4,000 — to vote for them.

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“This is why Belinda Stronach ran second against Stephen Harper,” Wiseman recalled. “She didn’t speak a word of French, how come she ran second? How come she beat Tony Clement? It’s because she had money and she hired organizers who went into what we can only call ‘rotten boroughs’ and signed up a few members.”