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Russell Wangersky: Watching the Conservatives

Conservative Party leadership candidates butted heads Dec. 6 in Moncton, N.B. Shown during the Nov. 9 debate in Saskatoon are, from left: Kellie Leitch, Lisa Raitt, Dan Lindsay, Steven Blaney, Andrew Scheer, Deepak Obhrai, Michael Chong, Andrew Saxton, Erin O’Toole, and Maxime Bernier. Chris Alexander and Brad Trost are not pictured.
Conservative Party leadership candidates butted heads Dec. 6 in Moncton, N.B. Shown during the Nov. 9 debate in Saskatoon are, from left: Kellie Leitch, Lisa Raitt, Dan Lindsay, Steven Blaney, Andrew Scheer, Deepak Obhrai, Michael Chong, Andrew Saxton, Erin O’Toole, and Maxime Bernier. Chris Alexander and Brad Trost are not pictured.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Conservative Party’s leadership debate in Moncton on Tuesday. I thought I was likely to flick it off pretty quickly — 14 candidates, most of them men in suits, all fighting for the same mid-term middle ground.

Russell Wangersky

After expecting to be bored by the sameness, I found it strangely refreshing.

Clearly, you can poke fun at the bad French some displayed — but how would you like to campaign in a second language that you were still trying to get to grips with?

But there was far more — if the Harper government was your clearest experience with the Tory party, you never would have guessed that there was such a broad range of ideas in the tent.

Now, it’s kind of funny that organizers put long shot Dan Lindsay on the far left of the podium as he faced the crowd, because he sounded (and looked) the most leftie of the bunch, while at the far right was Rick Peterson, with his repeated campaign promise to drop all corporate taxes for massive growth. (He’s forgetting, I guess, that the last time corporate taxes were cut for growth, under Harper, the corporations just kept all the money in their bank accounts and laughed all the way to the expanded executive pay package.) It was like looking at the left wingtip of the party, and at the other end, the right wingtip.

The other candidates had their own issues and approaches, and some weren’t afraid to tussle — some piling on Michael Chong for his carbon tax plan, and Chong firing back at the intolerance-based campaigning of Dr. Kellie Leitch, and at Chris Alexander’s failure to stop “lock her up” chants about Alberta Premier Rachel Notley at a weekend rally.

Deepak Obhrai is not likely going to win with his current approach (anyone would admit he’s a long shot), but wow — a Conservative with an actual on-stage sense of humour, and not afraid to use it.

And yes, some slipped quickly — and some darkly — into their scripted talking points, like Leitch and her bizarre suggestion that this country is so dangerous we all need to have the option to be armed with mace or pepper spray.

I’ll admit I have a problem with Leitch’s intolerance politics. Her wrap-up lines sound like they were devised by a backroom team following focus group metrics, and someone should tell her to lose that tight half-smile she throws in after delivering her scripted sound-bite lines.

When she gets those lines out, the little smile makes her looks proud that she’s just delivered a schoolyard zinger about how you’re so poor you had to get your shoes at the thrift store. (Candidate Maxime Bernier’s description of her as “Karaoke Trump” alone was worth the price of admission.)

There are at least one other I could do without — Brad Trost, who tweeted just before the debate that he’d have been out there shouting, “Lock her up” along with the Alberta crowd, is clearly riding the fringe train on the short track to elimination.

There were maddening bits: the listing of the number of children and dogs they all have — everyone try to be more average folks, I guess — was a waste of time. Still, I kept watching — and I’m not even in the demographic of delegates they want listening.

I expect things to get more bitter as the race goes on, and there may still be entrants who pop up and change the whole dynamic.

It’s early; several of the long, long line of suits will drop out of the race. Those who remain will have to up their game — but for the most part, the evening’s humanity was a nice change.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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