OTTAWA — Before Canada's new Conservative leader arrived at a news conference this week to opine on the spring session of Parliament, an aide affixed a sign to the podium: "Andrew Scheer, leader of the Official Opposition."
The jokes came quickly: if the parliamentary media needed a sign to know who he was, what hope does he have among Canadians?
The goal for Scheer this summer as he sets out on a cross-Canada tour following last month's narrow victory in the party's leadership race is a simple one: introduce himself — and his vision for the party — to the nation.
"Conservatives need to show Canadians our positive vision and why Conservatives believe what we believe," he said from the podium bearing his name.
"We're almost at the halfway mark for this Liberal mandate and it's pretty obvious that the sunny skies have clouded over."
At present, there appears to be a sliver of daylight between the governing Liberals and the Conservatives is tight, though the election is still two years away, a new Canadian Press/Ekos Politics poll suggests.
Of 5,568 people surveyed earlier this month, 33 per cent said they'd vote Conservative if an election was held that day, compared with 35.3 per cent who'd vote Liberal. The poll has a margin of error of 1.3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
It will be months before it becomes clear what a Scheer government would look like from a policy standpoint. Scheer's Opposition, however, will crystallize in the next few weeks, including which MPs will sit in the shadow cabinet.
We're almost at the halfway mark for this Liberal mandate and it's pretty obvious that the sunny skies have clouded over.
Political watchers will be looking to see how Scheer continues efforts by his predecessor Rona Ambrose to promote new faces in the party, all the while giving prominent roles to his former leadership rivals in hopes of keeping them onside.
Several appeared in front-row Commons seats after the race, including Ontario MP Kellie Leitch. But there were calls for her ouster this week when she posted a link to a newspaper story about a Syrian convicted on domestic violence charges.
"A battered wife and a bloodied hockey stick. That's the legacy of Trudeau's Syrian refugee program," read the tweet, also the last line of the Toronto Sun column. The absence of quotation marks muddied the waters.
"She retweeted something without quotes ... I'm not sure that is her view," Scheer said when asked about it. "I don't know that she said that."
$185-a-plate event in Calgary
An early test for Scheer's leadership will be whether the party can hold the seat in Quebec being vacated by Denis Lebel, the current deputy leader. Scheer will head to that province first before heading out to Atlantic Canada, then Vancouver and the party's Stampede barbecue in Calgary.
"Come on out and meet our new leader Andrew Scheer and many MPs as we kick off the countdown to election 2019," reads the social media promo for the $185-a-plate event.
The Conservative party shrugged off the notion that they're engaged in the same cash-for-access fundraising tactics they've been attacking the Liberals for all year.
"The issue is providing preferential access to government," spokesman Cory Hann said, adding the Tories will always play by the rules.
The Tories don't support changing those rules; they recently voted against the first iteration of a Liberal bill that would require even opposition leaders to make fundraisers more transparent.
We are sympathetic to the Conservatives, but only when they're conservative
But for some, there are concerns that the Conservatives under Scheer are taking too much of a page from the Liberals.
The decision by most Tories to vote in favour of a Liberal-backed motion supporting the Paris climate accord was derided loudly, for example, at a recent gathering of fans of the Rebel, the right-wing online news site.
"We are sympathetic to the Conservatives, but only when they're conservative," said Rebel founder Ezra Levant.
Only 62,593 of the party's 259,000 members actually voted for Scheer, so part of the point of the summer tour is to get well acquainted with the rest.
Scheer must also lay the groundwork to expand the party's reach. The CP/Ekos poll suggests support for Scheer is strongest among men and older Canadians — traditional bases of support.
Among those aged 18-34, 29 per cent of respondents said they'd vote Conservative, compared to 31 per cent for the Liberals.
Winning over that coveted demographic is key to the Tories, and fixating on the Liberal deficit will be one approach to bump those numbers higher.
The only way deficits are paid off is by hiking taxes, Scheer said.
"But what the prime minister is failing to realize is that when you tax Canadians, they have less money to save for their university education, their first home or for their retirement," he said.
"And that's why Conservatives believe in a balanced budget. It means more money for Canadians."