The party executive decided Saturday to hold the contest sometime between April 1 and May 31, 2015, which several potential candidates say was the preference of many rank-and-file members.
"Due to a significant amount of input from party members and caucus, the executive decided there is an appetite for further consultations and discussions with party members across Ontario," Tory spokesman Alan Sakach said in an email.
A committee will consult with the members on details such as a convention date, spending caps and entry fees and report back to the party brass on Sept. 21, he added.
The Conservative constitution requires a leadership contest to be held within 18 months of the last election, but there was a debate about how long the race should be, with some suggesting it should be held by the end of the year or as far out as 2016.
A shorter race would benefit candidates who already have the machinery in place to hit the ground running, squeezing out possible contenders who needed more time to organize and seek out support.
So far, only Christine Elliott, who finished third behind Tim Hudak in the 2009 race, has declared her intention to run. Fellow MPPs Lisa MacLeod, Vic Fedeli and Monte McNaughton say they're seriously considering a bid and will make their decisions soon.
All three of them expressed support for a spring leadership election, saying it was the general consensus among the party members who attended 11 post-election review sessions across the province.
The party has struggled to heal following its June 12 defeat — the Tories' fourth consecutive loss —which reduced what was once considered to be Ontario's natural governing party to 28 seats in a 107-member legislature.
The party's grassroots were irate over the way the campaign was handled, particularly with the platform that ignored many of their ideas and contained a politically disastrous proposal to cut 100,000 public sector jobs to help balance the province's books in two years.
The timing of the leadership contest gives the party nine months to rebuild and replenish its ranks, which have plunged to just 10,000 members, MacLeod said.
Both Fedeli and McNaughton, who are both embarking on province-wide tours, said it's the right decision.
"The PC party executive listened to the wisdom of the grassroots," McNaughton said in an email. "This is a start in rebuilding our party as we work to victory in 2018."
Showing party members that they're being heard is an important message to send after the last campaign, Fedeli said in an interview.
"These are the people who bang in signs, knock on doors, we need to listen to them," he said. "We had a convention where they came up with a lot of great policy ideas, and not even one of them was used."
Fedeli said he's glad the spending limits haven't been set, as some of the numbers being tossed around are very high — over $1 million and "far beyond that."
Anyone who's serious about running for the leadership will get started sometime after Labour Day, he said.
Federal Conservative backbencher Patrick Brown, widely seen to be a more socially conservative candidate, is testing the waters. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's name has been mentioned, but she hasn't said whether she'll take the plunge.
The leadership contest would be held before the next federal election on Oct. 19, 2015, which may also be a factor in their decisions.
Former leader Tim Hudak triggered the race when he resigned his post last month. Veteran Tory Jim Wilson is filling in as interim leader.
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