by Chantal Hebert

Now that the deadline has passed for Conservative rivals to sign up new members for the May leadership vote, here are a handful of observations on the fluid state of play in the battle for Stephen Harper’s succession:

1. There are still 14 names on the Conservative ballot, but a consensus is emerging that the must-watch list is down to five. That may be a generous number. The names on the list are Kevin O’Leary, Maxime Bernier, Kelly Leitch, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer.

For different reasons and to varying degrees, the first three are polarizing figures whose signature policies divide the party and have moderate appeal, to put it mildly, within the caucus of 97 MPs.

O’Leary and Bernier are the presumed front-runners.

But they may not be the second or third choice of enough Conservatives to go the distance.

That is even more true of Leitch. You either like her Trump-style approach to immigration issues a lot or dislike it intensely. There is no middle ground

O’Toole and Scheer are locked in a battle to be the fallback candidate. That battle has been picking up speed over the past few weeks.

2. Harper’s succession could have turned into a battle-by-proxy between the two factions that resumed their cohabitation within a reunified Conservative party over his decade in power. The old divide between former Tories and ex-Reformers could have resurfaced over the yearlong leadership campaign.

That is not happening.

Or, at least, it is not happening in a defining way.

None of the presumed front-runners has emerged as a stalking horse for one or other of the two factions. If anything, some of the leading figures on both sides of the Conservative schism of the recent past are looking beyond the front-runners for a possible successor to Harper.

From his new niche as Alberta’s Tory leader, Jason Kenney used an editorial board meeting with Postmedia this week to warn Conservative members against O’Leary. He says the reality-TV star is unqualified to lead the federal party.

On Tuesday, former Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay showed up at an fundraising event for Ontario MP Erin O’Toole.

Neither Kenney nor MacKay has had a kind word for the identity-driven immigration policies promoted by Leitch.

3. If it were up to the Conservative caucus, neither O’Leary, nor Bernier (nor Leitch) would succeed Harper. A majority of Quebec MPs have declined to back Bernier. Most of them oppose his bid to end supply management in the dairy industry and his contention that the federal government should not have helped the auto industry at the time of the global economic crisis or, more recently, aerospace giant Bombardier.

In the battle for caucus endorsements, O’Toole and Scheer have the leading roles. Whether that will help either of them bridge the distance from second to the top tier is an open question. But, for many MPs, the choice at this juncture seems to hinge on which of those second-tier candidates has the best chance of coming up the middle.

4. As they watch part of the Conservative establishment scramble to prevent O’Leary from parlaying his celebrity status into the leader’s job, the Liberals and the NDP have no cause to be smug about their own selection process.

They are not immune to an O’Leary-style stunt.

At least the Conservatives, by giving each riding equal weight in the leadership vote, have some safeguards in place to make it harder for a social media rock star to turn his or her following into a flood of supporters.

The New Democrats elect their leader through the universal suffrage of their members, without distinction of region or riding. It is not necessary to become a full-fledged party member to participate in a Liberal leadership vote. It is enough to be a sympathizer.

Under a straight one-member-one vote leadership formula, O’Leary, whose main asset in this campaign has been name recognition, might have a bigger lead on the competition than he does under the weighted Conservative process.

5. There is little doubt that the choice of a polarizing leader, one who is unloved by his caucus to boot, would shrink the Conservative tent to the Liberals’ advantage.

Anyone who covered the near-implosion of the Canadian Alliance under Stockwell Day 15 years ago has first-hand knowledge of the perils of electing a leader who is not equipped to command or keep the respect of his or her caucus.

Copyright 2017 Torstar Syndication Services

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