05/04/2015 02:29 EDT | Updated 05/04/2016 05:12 EDT

Ontario PCs Rally Behind Christine Elliott After Ex-Rival's Attack

TORONTO - Many Progressive Conservatives rallied behind leadership candidate Christine Elliott in the Ontario legislature Monday after one of their own suggested she was more of a Trudeau-Liberal than a real conservative.

With the Tories set to announce a new leader Saturday, London-area MPP Monte McNaughton — himself a former leadership candidate — sent an email accusing Elliott of "waffling" in her opposition to the Liberal's new sex education curriculum.

Elliott, the deputy PC leader and widow of former finance minister Jim Flaherty, has said she wants to create a "big blue tent" of Tory supporters if she defeats Barrie MP Patrick Brown to win the leadership.

"Ms. Elliott should rename her tent the "little red tent" or "little pink tent," McNaughton wrote under the title 'Christine Elliott Trudeau???' in a message sent to 12,000 PC members hours before Sunday's first round of voting. "Ms. Elliott is playing the politics of division, and will surely lead the PC party to defeat in the next election."

Ottawa-area MPP Lisa MacLeod, who threw her support behind Elliott when she withdrew from the leadership race, said most of the PC caucus wore pink Monday to show solidarity with Elliott and to demonstrate that the party is not homophobic.

"We're wearing pink today because we don't want to send a message to any children out there who may believe in fiscal conservative values but at the same time think that our party is intolerant, which we are not," said MacLeod. "I was personally very sad because I think a lot of Monte McNaughton and I thought he had a great career ahead of him."

McNaughton insisted his pink tent comments referred only to his opinion that Elliott is a "Liberal-lite" conservative, and to a TV commentator's remark that she was "too pink" for some in the PC party.

"Leadership contests are a bit uncomfortable at times, and I think that's what we're seeing here," he said.

But MacLeod wasn't buying McNaughton's explanation.

"Either the words were ill chosen, or they were meant to paint members of our caucus in an unflattering light," she said.

McNaughton, who threw his support to Brown after he withdrew from the race, said his opposition to the sex ed curriculum had nothing to do with homophobia.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I know lots of people close to my family who choose to love whoever they choose to love, and I have no issues with that."

Kitchener PC Michael Harris called it "ridiculous" for McNaughton to break former U.S. president Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th commandment: thou shalt not speak ill against another Conservative.

"Unfortunately we saw someone who idolizes Ronald Reagan violate that most important (political) commandment," said Harris. "I find that very disappointing."

Many Tories took to Twitter to condemn McNaughton's attack on Elliott, with former PC party president Ken Zeise saying it hurt both candidates.

PC members across the province started casting ballots Sunday for either Elliott or Brown, and will have another chance to vote on Thursday. The winner will be announced Saturday in Toronto.

Former PC leader Tim Hudak resigned after the party lost its fourth consecutive election to the Liberals last June.

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