04/26/2017 13:29 EDT | Updated 04/26/2017 17:02 EDT

Kevin O'Leary quits Conservative leadership race, supports Maxime Bernier

OTTAWA — Celebrity investor and reality-TV star Kevin O'Leary, who rattled Conservative cages three months ago when he joined the party's leadership race, did it again Wednesday by quitting a contest observers believe he had every chance of winning.  

O'Leary's stunning news — he's throwing his support behind Quebec rival Maxime Bernier —  appeared to catch even some members of his campaign team off-guard as they gathered to prepare for Wednesday's final leadership debate.

Behind the scenes, however, O'Leary been mulling the idea for about a week, say sources, ever more convinced that as leader, he might never be able to rally enough support in Quebec to deliver a majority Conservative mandate in 2019.

"It's selfish to just take the leadership and say, 'Great, I'm the leader, now in 24 months I will lose for the party,'" the frank-talking "Shark Tank" star told a news conference in Toronto.  

"That's not right. That's just wrong."

The tipping point, he said, came when he saw Conservative membership numbers overall that were even higher than he expected, which meant he didn't have as large a share of the support as he thought he did.

When he learned that ballots had already been printed and mailed, he decided to act, picking up a phone at 1:30 a.m. to call Bernier, a longtime Quebec MP, to pledge his support.

The two share similar policies, while Bernier can deliver the number of seats the Tories need to form a majority government, O'Leary said.

On the campaign trail, the two weren't exactly the best of friends. Bernier at one point called O'Leary a "loser," and each campaign more or less accused the other of voter fraud, though the allegations were never proven.

But it was all smiles Wednesday as Bernier said the endorsement marks a turning point.

"As Kevin says, in Quebec the numbers for me are very good and the competition I had outside Quebec was really Kevin," Bernier said in French.

"And we're going to bring our forces together so we can win this race and then beat Justin Trudeau in 2019." 

O'Leary said he'll do whatever it takes to help Bernier, but defended the fact his campaign sent out a fundraising letter just hours before he dropped out. He said he still needs the funds and will continue to raise money, though he didn't explain why.

A lack of facility with French was always considered one of O'Leary's greatest liabilities.

He skipped the last bilingual debate in Edmonton over concerns about the format, and had  waited to enter the race until after the French-language one in January.

In the early days of the race, he played down the importance of being able to speak French, but changed his tune and hired a tutor to help him brush up after a public outcry.

It was one of several about-faces he's made during the three months he was officially in the contest.

Still, O'Leary had plenty of assets: instant recognition, thanks to years of television exposure; a public image as a savvy financial manager; and a brash, no-nonsense, outsider approach that echoed the unlikely ascent of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Conservative party said Tuesday there are 259,010 members eligible to vote. O'Leary claims to have signed up just over 35,000, and there's no guarantee any or all will agree to back Bernier.

"This is terrible!" Facebook visitor Nathan Welbourn wrote on O'Leary's page after the news broke. "I don't even know what to say and I can reassure you Kevin my vote is not going to Bernier.

"As a citizen of Quebec I had a lot of hope (in) you. Extremely disappointed."

A major point of divergence between the two candidates is supply management, a Canadian mechanism for supporting dairy farmers popular in Quebec that has been making headlines as Trump promises to do battle with Canada over trade.

Bernier supports abolishing the system, while O'Leary has called it vital to Canada's agriculture sector.

The other Quebec candidate in the race, Steven Blaney, said since he also supports supply management, O'Leary's departure opens a door.

"It's an opportunity to go and court the voters who were ready to make their first choice Mr. O'Leary," Blaney said.