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Jean Charest says he can win. But what do Conservatives want to hear?

Click to play video: 'Jean Charest launches Conservative leadership bid in Calgary'
Jean Charest launches Conservative leadership bid in Calgary
WATCH: Former Quebec premier Jean Charest launched his campaign to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday in Calgary. Adam MacVicar reports – Mar 11, 2022

Jean Charest is building his Conservative leadership bid around a promise that he knows how to bring the party back to power.

But after Conservative MPs just defenestrated the last leader for making the same promise and falling short, it’s not clear that’s the message the party wants to hear right now.

Speaking at a Calgary brewery Thursday night, Charest made his track record — at least the parts where he won — a central part of the pitch.

Read more: Jean Charest says Conservatives are ‘divided,’ must unite to provide ‘national vision’

“I want to unite the party. And once we have been able to sit down and look at what we want to do for the country, we’ll have a very short period of time, about two years, to prepare for a general election campaign,” Charest told the crowd.

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“And I guarantee, if there’s one thing I know and I have learned in politics: I know how to win.”

Charest’s opponents — chiefly Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, the race’s presumed frontrunner — want to use his record against him. Charest will try to use it, albeit selectively, as an asset.

Read more: Former Quebec premier Jean Charest brings both notoriety and baggage to Conservative race

What the strategy risks missing is that Erin O’Toole made a similar pitch to the Conservative caucus, and it ended up costing him the leadership.

While O’Toole campaigned during the leadership as a rock-ribbed “True Blue” Conservative, he did a complete 180 after securing the top job — campaigning as a moderate, carbon price-endorsing centrist. Caucus sources grumbled that O’Toole’s people insisted the strategy would work in the next general election, which came in Sept. 2021.

It didn’t — the Conservatives secured 33.7 per cent of the popular vote. That’s less than Andrew Scheer was able to capture in 2019 (34.3 per cent), and just slightly better than Stephen Harper’s defeat in 2015’s change election (31.9 per cent).

When the backlash came for O’Toole, it came predominantly from the party’s even more right wing — from Western MPs who felt O’Toole traded principle for power and ended up with neither.

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Now Charest is promising power, while Poilievre attacks him on principles — his embrace of carbon pricing, on taxes, his defence of the long-gun registry, the fact that he for quite some time ran a party called “the Quebec Liberals.”

Read more: O’Toole calls for ‘balance’ as Conservative MPs plunge party into leadership race

“Electability is a strength that Jean Charest should try and project in this race, because it’s definitely a perceived strength of his. But the fact is the current membership of the Conservative Party of Canada is one that is very dedicated to policies, principles, and an argument of winning for the sake of winning will never be a compelling sales pitch for them,” said Michael Diamond, a conservative strategist who worked on Peter MacKay’s 2020 leadership, but is staying neutral in this race.

Diamond said O’Toole’s leadership pitch recognized that — that it’s not enough to win, the party had to win with conservative principles. It was only after he lost, Diamond said, that O’Toole pivoted to electability for its own sake.

The race is in its early days, and Charest just officially announced his candidacy Thursday. There is time for the former Quebec premier to put forward those principles and policies — beyond his stated desire for “unity” and “fiscal conservativism” — that could narrow the gap between his position and Poilievre’s stance.

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In an interview with Global News Thursday, Charest said that another one of his goals was to bring new members into the fold. That is likely to be a crucial part of his bid — selling enough memberships, including among lapsed progressive conservatives in Central and Eastern Canada, to counter Poilievre’s perceived advantage in the West.

Read more: Poilievre promises to kill carbon ‘tax’ as Conservatives weigh climate plans

Those new and lapsed Conservatives might be more interested in a candidate that can bring the party an edge in the general election.

But unless there are many thousands of those prospective members lying dormant across the country, Charest will still have to win over voters in the Conservative heartland — where they’ve heard promises about winning power before, and not too long ago.

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