It was over a month ago that the fact of a race to lead the Conservative Party of Canada came to be. It only took a few more days after the ouster of Erin O’Toole from the leadership for the most unsurprising candidate to step forward in the person of Pierre Poilievre. Since then, people have taken their time to decide if they would take the leap and try to challenge the one who was seen as the true front runner. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, we saw Poilievre and his supporters doing their best to try to scare off any serious competition, trying to claim the soul of the Conservative Party without a fight.

Until this week one could have argued that Poilievre was being successful in that attempt, as no one had stepped into the breach to signal their clear intent that they would take their shot. But as this week started, that changed with likely the largest other shoe to drop ready to hit the floor in Calgary tonight. And with that, the true race will begin:

It’s not shocking that former Quebec Premier Jean Charest has finally deciding to take this plunge, but it wasn’t a sure thing that it would happen. Team Poilievre has thrown everything in the direction of the former federal Progressive Conservative leader to try to keep him from taking this step, which showed just how much they worried about his potential entry. And let’s be clear on this, in this potential field Charest is really the only candidate who can directly challenge Poilievre. That’s no disrespect to other candidates who have already declared like Leslyn Lewis, Roman Baber or Patrick Brown (when he jumps in as expected). I have strong disagreements with all three of those individuals but looking at the cold, hard reality of this race, they don’t have a path to victory. That’s because of the stakes in this race.

This is going to be a true race for the soul of the Conservative Party. It will tell us a lot about the direction of the Conservatives for the next decade, if they are even able to stay together. Let’s be real, if Poilievre wins, there are many members of that caucus who can’t stand him, what he stands for, his way of doing politics and likely won’t stay. The same is true of Charest when it comes to the sentiments of those who oppose him. Those people just tossed O’Toole for not being “pure” enough, and Charest is even more impure in their eyes. As I’ve been arguing for the past week on radio and TV, the party that the next Conservative leader inherits on Day 1 will not be the same one they have on Day 30 and onward.

That is the axis this whole race is resting on, and none of the other candidates have any effect on that. Only Poilievre and Charest. Maclean’s Paul Wells put a fine point on this challenge that has really stuck with me, that speaks to the challenge the Blue team is facing right now:

“Its only winning leader was Stephen Harper. Harper worked hard, for little credit, to ensure Progressive Conservatives like Peter MacKay and Lawrence Cannon could feel reasonably comfortable in his party. The basis of Poilievre’s appeal is that he doesn’t work hard to make anyone feel comfortable.”

Source: Macleans.ca

Wells is very right on this point. For all the knocks you can have on Stephen Harper (and there are plenty), he was able to not just bring, but hold this group together and keep the focused on the prize. That feat looks all the strong in the shadows of the failed Scheer and O’Toole leaderships. They never would have won government three times if they were approaching things the way they did under those two and continue to now. As Wells points out, the whole point of Poilievre’s appeal is he doesn’t give a crap about your feelings. It’s all about purity, no bridge building. The fact that Andrew Scheer has jumped onto Poilievre’s team as a campaign co-chair in Saskatchewan should tell you about the direction he’ll take. I doubt that Scheer would be onboard if Poilievre was offering a leadership that was an admonition of his own approach.

At this point we have a race and now we need to look at the nitty gritty of it all. Each candidate has their pros and cons, which need to be addressed. Charest has his baggage, but given how Poilievre threw it all at him in an attempt to keep him out, there isn’t anything left to do any more damage. That’s baked in. Charest though has governing experience coming out of everywhere, having fought to save Canada and trying to keep Quebec in the country. That’s heavy stuff that Poilievre doesn’t come close to matching, despite the fact he’s actually sat in the House of Commons longer than Jean Charest did. Some will point to Poilievre’s organizational and digital strength, and compare that to the fact that Charest wasn’t on Twitter until yesterday. That is a gap that Charest will need to close, and Poilievre has shown his chops in this way in the past. But while doing a bit of research for this piece, I was amazed to make this discovery when visiting Poilievre’s leadership campaign website:

As that screenshot shows, if you visit pierre4pm.ca, the first thing that comes up is that donation page (automatically set to give a max donation of over $1,600 to boot). That’s not abnormal for any political candidate or party. But what is abnormal is that there is nothing else there. It’s just the donation page, that’s it. I thought maybe there might be a wrong link or something, so I went to Poilievre’s Twitter and Facebook pages to see if I was missing something. The only other thing I could find was a link to a Linktree page, which has links to his donation page and petitions. Again, no campaign website, no information about the man himself, nothing about his policies, platform, plans or ideas. Not a thing to speak of.

I have to say that it’s an interesting choice for the supposed leader on the digital front not even having a website, not telling us a thing about him. I raise that point to bring everything back to this. Being the front runner at the start of this campaign guarantees nothing. Polling out yesterday shows Poilievre far out ahead before much has happened. But what struck me was this reminder about how things looked around the same time at the start of the last Conservative leadership campaign less than two years ago:

Just a reminder folks that Peter Mackay seemed inevitable last time, until he wasn’t. Mackay’s campaign made many gaffes as that campaign went along, which helped to bring him back to earth and back to the pack. Mackay was no slouch as an organizer himself too, but there were a lot of people who didn’t want to see him win. The same could be said of today’s front runner Poilievre, and to a certain degree, his main challenger Charest. So in my mind, even through the race to replace Erin O’Toole started a month ago today is the true start of this campaign. Tonight the fight will kick off in earnest in Calgary, and the result will affect the face of #cdnpoli for a long time to come.