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Erin O’Toole’s challenge is to define himself before the Liberals do it for him

Click to play video: 'The West Block: One-on-one with Erin O’Toole' The West Block: One-on-one with Erin O’Toole
In an exclusive one-on-one interview with the new leader of the Opposition, Mercedes Stephenson asks Erin O’Toole about how he will unite the party, balance budgets and lay out his vision for Canada. – Aug 30, 2020

Enemies of Erin O’Toole, the freshly minted leader of the federal Conservative Party, wasted little time in trying to define their new opponent for Canadian voters.

Liberal attackers quickly questioned whether O’Toole has a secret anti-abortion agenda, even though he has said he is pro-choice and will not reopen the abortion debate.

And they pointed to opinion polls suggesting Conservative voters are more likely to be cynical about government efforts to curb COVID-19 infections, suggesting O’Toole is now leading an “anti-science” party.

These are expected attacks on a new political leader and part of a time-tested strategy: Define the public image of your opponent before he has a chance to define it for himself.

Read more: Half of Canadians say they know little about new Conservative leader O’Toole, poll finds

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For O’Toole, convincing Canadians that he would not pursue a hard-edged, right-wing agenda as prime minister will be one of his main challenges as the new Conservative leader.

O’Toole won the party leadership in a minor upset over pre-race favourite Peter MacKay, a former leader of the old Progressive Conservatives regarded as a moderate who would turn the party toward the centre of the political spectrum.

But MacKay ran a bad campaign marred by gaffes and communication miscues.

Maybe the most damaging error by MacKay was his comment that socially conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage were like a “stinking albatross” hanging around the party’s neck.

Click to play video: 'Erin O’Toole says he’s pro-choice, defends past voting record on abortion rights' Erin O’Toole says he’s pro-choice, defends past voting record on abortion rights
Erin O’Toole says he’s pro-choice, defends past voting record on abortion rights – Aug 25, 2020

The comment insulted many right-of-centre party supporters who threw their support to O’Toole instead.

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It also generated second- and third-ballot votes for O’Toole from supporters of unsuccessful leadership opponents Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, both anti-abortion candidates.

So now O’Toole faces a delicate balancing act. Support from the strong socially conservative wing of the party sealed his victory and he can’t forget them.

“He now owes social conservatives big time,” the right-wing REAL Women of Canada group said in a news release.

Read more: Conservative Leader O’Toole says triggering fall election ‘not my priority’

“Social conservatives will not tolerate, under any circumstances, the ignoring of their views or the talents they bring to the party.”

How will O’Toole appease this powerful wing of the Conservative Party? I suspect he will showcase Lewis, for one thing, after her spirited leadership run.

But to wrest power from Justin Trudeau and his governing Liberals, O’Toole knows he must broaden the Conservatives’ public appeal.

Expect him to double-down on his pro-choice position and to march in a Pride parade as part of his strategy.

Click to play video: 'Challenges ahead for new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole' Challenges ahead for new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole
Challenges ahead for new Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole – Aug 24, 2020

O’Toole will also reach out to visible minorities in an effort to open the party’s doors to new supporters.

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The Liberals, meanwhile, will keep trying to convince Canadians that O’Toole has a secret agenda against women and immigrants.

But O’Toole will be prepared for these attacks. And while the Liberals might think O’Toole’s lack of name recognition will make him an easier opponent for Trudeau than MacKay might have posed, I give O’Toole a strong chance to make gains for the Tories.

He’s a warmer, more approachable politician than ex-leader Andrew Scheer, for one thing. His background in the Canadian military will appeal to many mainstream voters. And his strong stand against China could also be a refreshing change for Canadians looking for a tougher approach to a strategic adversary.

If O’Toole can define himself — instead of allowing the Liberals to do it for him — he has a chance to shake up Canadian politics.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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