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Conservative campaigns weave tangled webs of allegations as race intensifies

OTTAWA — With 10 days to go to sign up voters for the federal Conservative leadership race, all four contenders are intensifying efforts to shore up support.

OTTAWA — With 10 days to go to sign up voters for the federal Conservative leadership race, all four contenders are intensifying efforts to shore up support.

Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay appear locked in a fight for frontrunner status, with Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan rounding out the slate.

Candidates have to do a delicate two-step dance to win the race: first, sign up new members whose votes they can count on. Then, convert others to rank them second on the preferential ballot the party uses.

For all four that means appealing to potential supporters beyond their bases, whether it is the social conservatives backing Lewis and Sloan or beyond the old "Red" Tories seen as aligned with MacKay and O’Toole.

The delicate dance to assemble a winning coalition has sometimes been a comedy of errors, exposing the tangled nature of conservative politics in Canada.

It's a web longtime Conservative Shelly Glover found herself caught up in this week.

The former Conservative cabinet minister, who left her Winnipeg seat in 2015, was among a handful of MPs who in 2012 supported efforts to widen legal protection for transgender rights.

Glover declared in March that she was backing MacKay.

But when MacKay's leadership campaign put out an email to supporters last week calling that 2012 effort a "bathroom bill" — a label seen as highly derogatory, implying that predatory men will use transgender rights to enter women's public washrooms — she was disappointed.

Glover made her concerns known over the weekend during a campaign call with O'Toole and conservatives in Manitoba, the province she calls home. An audio recording of her remarks was obtained by The Canadian Press.

"I was participating with Peter MacKay's leadership, and I have today withdrawn my support," she told participants in what sounded like a win for O'Toole.

But Glover said afterward she didn't actually break from MacKay.  

She said she made O'Toole aware of that, and her decision to "withdraw support" for MacKay means she won't try to sign up new Conservatives to vote for him. But she still backs him for leader.

"It's sad when I'm trying to make sure the two men I respect know that I remain committed to always helping the LGBTQ community feel accepted and loved ... then some anonymous source interprets it differently to make trouble that doesn't exist," Glover said in an email to The Canadian Press.  

"I strongly condemn the wording (of the message from MacKay's campaign) and will not defend it. Peter is a great leader and I don't believe he was involved in writing that release."

MacKay's "bathroom bill" email came after the release of fundraising data by Elections Canada late last week, saying that in the first three months of 2020, the MacKay campaign raised $1.045 million to O'Toole's $785,000.

But, O'Toole's campaign argued, what of MacKay's March 5 boast that he'd raised $1 million already? If that were true, then he only brought in $40,000 in most of March, and therefore must be losing, his team alleged.

Lewis seized on that, too, suggesting the fundraising data actually put her in the No. 2 position for the balance of March.

Fully parsed, the Elections Canada data suggested about 80 per cent of MacKay's $1 million was in the party's hands as of March 5, and the balance made its way to party coffers after.

Lewis tossed the ball back to MacKay, saying he had to justify his March 1 tweet.

Just as the fundraising numbers were released, the MacKay campaign invited supporters to join a conference call that evening for a "special announcement."

The telephone line wasn't working properly, however, so the announcement was delayed, a statement from the campaign said that night. But, staff and MacKay, were on the line at the appointed time and discussed the events of the day.

The Canadian Press had also dialled in to hear the scheduled announcement and was able to hear some, but not all, of the discussion.

MacKay grumbled about the O'Toole campaign's spinning of the fundraising numbers, arguing no one cared about that level of detail.

The discussion shifted to how to respond, with one participant suggesting the MacKay campaign send O'Toole's email back out marked up with a red slash across it, "like a schoolteacher."

Though this decision wasn't audible on the call, the route MacKay's campaign ended up choosing was to send out an email accusing O'Toole of being a liar.

It hit email inboxes just as MacKay himself was telling supporters on the rescheduled evening call that he intended to take the high road in the campaign.

The email also included that reference to the 2012 transgender-rights bill, apparently attacking O'Toole's support for it.

MacKay has promised repeatedly he'd be a staunch defender and promoter of LGBTQ rights. His campaign later walked back the statement, saying he would support the 2012 bill now and wouldn't use that language again. The reference had been included in the email "in haste," the campaign said.

While all four candidates jockey for position, Ontario MP Scott Reid has pointed out that being someone's second choice matters as well, given the party's use of a preferential ballot.

After Sloan asked whether Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam actually works for China amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Conservative MPs from Ontario voted to threaten him with expulsion from their ranks — a move O'Toole opposed.

Reid used social media to lay out some of the politics at play. If Sloan were booted out of the caucus, he'd have to be out of the leadership race, Reid argued.

"But since he won't win anyway, why bother? Answer: A finalist who can't capture the second-ballot support of Sloan voters benefits if there are no first-ballot Sloan votes," Reid wrote in a lengthy Twitter post.

"Under the CPC's preferential ballot system, the second-ballot preferences of Sloan supporters could determine who becomes our next leader. Someone wants to get rid of him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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