03/29/2017 07:33 EDT | Updated 03/29/2017 07:37 EDT

Conservative Leadership Candidates Rush To Start Locking In Votes

OTTAWA — Conservative leadership candidates are shifting their attention from signing up new members to locking in their all-important votes now that the crucial membership deadline has passed.

Clinching those votes will take money and momentum and the campaigns were out in force Wednesday making the pitch for one to sustain the other until voting day on May 27.

First out of the blocks to declare membership numbers after the midnight cut-off for new sign ups was businessman, reality-TV star and leadership upstart Kevin O'Leary, declaring he had enlisted 35,336 members in the 69 days he's been officially in the race.

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Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary was the first out of the blocks to declare his membership tally. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/CP)

O'Leary's rival, Maxime Bernier entered the race over a year ago. His campaign said Wednesday membership numbers were still being tallied, but weren't far off from O'Leary's.

They're tied in recent fundraising too, according to duelling fundraising pitches, with each campaign seeking to outdo the other by Friday, the end of the year's first quarter.

The money is for phone banks, direct mail campaigns, emails, travel and get-out-the-vote programs.

But there's another reason behind the pitches — results of fundraising efforts for the first three months of 2017 will be released at the beginning of May and the numbers will set a narrative for who is truly ahead in the final weeks of the race.

That's one element of the momentum all candidates are looking for as they seek to stand out in a field of 14 contenders, said Jason Lietaer, a conservative strategist who isn't working for any of the campaigns.

Expect more efforts to woo high-profile endorsements, generate buzz around policy or just some clever marketing, he said, especially among those running behind the top two contenders.

With a ranked ballot election, the race could be won not by everyone's first choice but by their second or third.

"Whoever is deemed to have momentum going into the voting booth is likely to be that option that you might coalesce around if you're not interested in the top two,'' he said.

Kellie Leitch claimed Wednesday her campaign has sold over 30,000 memberships and some polls suggest she's in second place overall and is the first choice among undecided voters, a ranking other surveys dispute.

"What this means is that Kellie is positioned and ready to take the lead,'' the email said.

There are some newly minted Conservative members who are seeking to stop that.

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Conservative leadership candidates, from left, Chris Alexander, Pierre Lemieux, Erin O'Toole, Michael Chong, Rick Peterson, Lisa Raitt, Steven Blaney, Kevin O'Leary and Andrew Saxton each spoke to members and supporters at a meet and greet in Burlington, Ont. on Mar. 5. (Photo: Christopher Katsarov/CP)

Several campaigns sprung up to get people to pay $15 to become party members specifically to stop certain candidates from winning, among them Leitch, who is being targeted in part over a platform proposal to screen newcomers for Canadian values.

One group called Tolerable Opposition, which isn't tied to any candidate, said Wednesday it may have recruited around 5,000 people into the party with the goal of stopping Leitch or O'Leary from getting elected, based on what websites people went to after visiting theirs.

Lisa Raitt's campaign, which has been steadfast in its goal of stopping O'Leary, said Wednesday it had sold around 10,000 memberships. Michael Chong's campaign said it had about the same total.

The accuracy of membership sales claims is difficult to verify; the party doesn't expect to release an official total until some time in April, and even then it will be difficult to clearly link new members with specific campaigns.

Indeed, given the way the coming vote will be structured, the raw figures don't mean much.

Instead of "one member, one vote,'' every riding in the country is allocated 100 points no matter how many members they have and the points are allocated based on the share of the vote a candidate gets. They need a minimum of 16,901 points to win, so how many members have been signed up only matters if they are spread across the ridings.

On top of that, members don't just vote for one candidate. It's a ranked ballot, so members can select a maximum of 10 names from the list of 14, which means it's likely to take more than one ballot to choose a winner.

"With more than one ballot, Conservatives must consider more than just their first choice in deciding who to support,'' a Raitt campaign spokesperson said in an email to The Canadian Press.

"In doing so, they need to determine who best combines the qualities the Conservative party needs in its next leader.''

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