OTTAWA — This past spring, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole said that while he had no immediate plans to run for leadership of his party, he might pick up the phone should duty call.
For the past two weeks, that phone has been ringing off the hook, say sources close to the former veterans affairs minister.
As the Conservative party prepares for its first set of leadership debates this fall, some stalwarts are complaining that the candidates so far carry too much history and are casting around for a fresher face.
Many are looking at O'Toole.
Erin O'Toole speaks at a press conference in Ottawa on May 12, 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
In recent weeks, he's been on the receiving end of calls making the case he should run, and offering support and money if he does, say sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because he hasn't made a public announcement.
Reached Monday, O'Toole would not comment, but did not deny he is considering a bid.
It wouldn't be the first time he's been called for political duty.
'Erin is unblemished'
The former air force captain turned corporate lawyer was first elected to represent the Ontario riding of Durham in a 2012 byelection, after he stepped in to replace former cabinet minister Bev Oda, ousted in an expense scandal.
"Unlike the names out there now, Erin is unblemished," said one longtime party operative who didn't want to be publicly associated with a particular candidate.
"All of the other declared and undeclared contestants have various amounts of baggage — some have made massive blunders and showed horribly bad judgement — Erin doesn't have any of that baggage."
Took on hot veterans file in 2015
In 2015, O'Toole took over at Veterans Affairs after years of growing tension between veterans and the Tories. Under his watch, some of that tension vanished, and he quickly became one of Stephen Harper's trusted lieutenants.
O'Toole, 43, did seek the interim leadership of the party after last fall's federal election, saying he wanted to show the party was serious about rebuilding, but lost out to Rona Ambrose.
In March, he was asked by Global's Tom Clark whether he'd say no if a group of people asked him to run.
"I wouldn't (say no) if I thought I could help the cause," he said at the time.
Other contenders no strangers to controversy
Some of the current candidates have courted their share of controversy.
Maxime Bernier resigned from his job as foreign affairs minister in 2008 after leaving a briefcase of sensitive documents at a girlfriend's house.
Michael Chong quit as intergovernmental affairs minister in 2006 because he disagreed with the government's motion on recognizing Quebec as a nation inside a united Canada.
Tony Clement was pilloried as industry minister in 2010 for money spent on G8 projects in his riding that weren't directly connected to the summit.
Prior to the 2015 election, Kellie Leitch was one of two point people on a provocative promise to launch a tip line for so-called barbaric cultural practices — cited by many as a key turning point in the campaign.
Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai has also said he is going to run, though his name has yet to be added to the party's formal list of candidates.
O'Toole could play in Atlantic Canada
Others still making up their minds include former House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer and former cabinet ministers Lisa Raitt and Peter MacKay.
Raitt grew up in Nova Scotia and MacKay represented a riding in that province for 18 years; both of their connections there could serve the party well as it seeks to rebuild support in Atlantic Canada after losing every seat there last fall.
But O'Toole, the source noted, could also forge a political connection — he was stationed at CFB Shearwater in Nova Scotia and attended law school at Dalhousie.
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