NEWS
05/26/2017 13:25 EDT | Updated 05/26/2017 16:21 EDT

Ghost of past campaign looms over Conservative party leadership event

TORONTO — The last time Conservative party faithful gathered en masse in Toronto it was to hear from former leader and prime minister Stephen Harper.

On Friday, they met in the same location, this time to hear from the 13 people vying to replace him.

The Toronto Congress Centre, site of this weekend's leadership event — only the second such gathering in party history — will see hundreds of people standing on the same spot where some foresaw the party's exit from government about 18 months ago.

That rally, late in the 2015 campaign, was organized by the outspoken Ford brothers; Rob, the controversial mayor of the city and his brother Doug, who used their considerable electoral clout to muster supporters for the final Ontario campaign spot of 2015.

That the notoriously tough-on-crime Harper would allow his campaign to be linked with the Fords, given Rob's drug-using past, was seen by many at the time as an ill-conceived and last-ditch attempt to rally the Conservative base.

Harper would go on to lose the election, and resign as leader, just days later.

Now, the party is ready to go forward with his successor. The candidates are set to make their final pitches Friday night to those who've yet to cast a ballot in the 15-month-long race.

But the populist passion the Ford brothers brought to bear that night hasn't dissipated entirely.

Candidate Kellie Leitch was one of several contenders for leadership who campaigned using similar populist themes; indeed, for a time her campaign manager was the same fellow who helped Rob Ford secure his mayoral victory.

Leitch said her campaign has shown there is an active constituency eager for a discussion of Canadian values and immigration policy, the key policy planks of her run.

"Individuals have become engaged in our Conservative party because of that issue being at the forefront," she said.

"And I think that's fabulous."

The party did see its membership skyrocket in the run-up to the vote.

Some 259,000 people paid the required fee in order to cast a ballot, a process that's been going on now for about a month.

Friday marked the final day to get ballots in by mail, but members can cast ballots in person on Saturday at the convention site and at polling stations across the country.

Party officials said some 2,000 people were registered to attend the two-day gathering in Toronto, although MPs from other parties were not given passes to the event. The Liberals called that a break from custom and proof that the party — despite its assertions — has not left the days of Harper behind.

"The Conservative party is now becoming more closed up than even Stephen Harper was," said Liberal party spokesman Braeden Caley.

"It makes one wonder about the more extreme agenda that the party is bringing forward with these leadership candidates and what they have to hide."

The Conservatives said they weren't given passes to the 2013 Liberal leadership race either.

The sparring over access is an early preview of the rancour between parties that's expected to escalate once the permanent leader is chosen and takes a seat in the House of Commons as the leader of the Official Opposition, as early as next week.

But Job One for the winner will be to ensure party unity.

The preferential ballot being used to select the next leader could help ease some tension, since every voter can rank choices from first to 10th. That forces them to consider who, other than their favourite, would make an acceptable leader.

Under a preferential balloting system, if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote, the last-place contender is eliminated and his or her supporters' second choices are counted. That continues until one candidate emerges with a majority.

None of the 13 is expected to win on the first ballot, which means there'll be several rounds of counting before the winner is finally announced Saturday night.