Possible Tory leadership candidates test the waters at convention

Convention delegates had many chances to see the declared candidates and the maybes in action

VANCOUVER – As former Tory cabinet minister Peter MacKay stood at the entrance to his party’s policy convention in Vancouver on Saturday, a fellow party member ambled past.

“Good to see you Peter,” he said, “we’re waiting for you!”

MacKay laughed but didn’t answer – a response not uncommon in Vancouver these last few days as those considering a run for the Conservative leadership were pressed again and again on when they might make up their minds to run or not.

By the rules of the race, they have until the end of February to formally file the papers but the party is trying to force the issue.

Leadership debates organized by the party were supposed to begin in the fall, but some are pushing to hold them sooner in order to prompt candidates to make up their mind.

One of the factors for the party executive is money.

The party needs to amp up its fundraising machine as it begins preparations for the 2019 election, and leadership candidates each pay a $50,000 entrance fee. They’ll also sign up thousands of new members for at least $15 a piece.

But at the same time, leadership candidates are fundraising from the same pool of donors as the party itself, making the fight for dollars competitive.

Making a decision on whether to run is a combination of having enough money, enough volunteers and the ear of the party’s grassroots, said Lisa Raitt, an MP currently thinking about making a bid.

“You have got to get out of Ottawa to truly understand whether or not the brand you put forward is something that Canadians and your membership is interested in,” she said.

“So far, so good.”

The more than 2,000 delegates to the convention had multiple chances over the course of the 2 1/2 day convention to see the declared candidates and the maybes in action, from formal onstage panels to hospitality suites in hotels and pubs across the city’s downtown.

Hundreds crowded into a suite of rooms at Vancouver’s Terminal City club Friday night to hobnob with Jason Kenney, the longtime Conservative MP considering a bid for either the federal leadership or potentially making a play in Alberta to unite the right there.

He says he’ll make up his mind in the coming months. The take-away from the convention for leadership hopefuls is the mood of the party, he said.

“I and some others were expecting this to be a bit of a wake, a funeral reception, and it doesn’t feel like that at all,” he said.

Kenney’s was one of the names bandied about when social conservatives in the party were asked during the convention who’d they support, though that could be in doubt after it emerged he backed a motion to drop the party’s policy defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.

All three of the declared candidates – Kellie Leitch, Michael Chong and Maxime Bernier – supported the motion as well, with Bernier going so far as to speak up from the convention floor in its defence.

Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost told some reporters at the convention that Kenney’s decision to support the motion means Trost himself is now not ruling out his own leadership bid.

But one person whose name was tossed around a lot at the convention is officially out of the race.

A motion to change the rules to allow interim leader Rona Ambrose to run was soundly defeated, to the relief of at least one person.

Ambrose’s partner, J.P. Veitch, was spotted on the convention floor Saturday wearing a T-shirt reading “No, she’s not running.”