Tory trio makes final pitch
Free Press Parliamentary Bureau and news services 2004-03-20 03:15:09
<a href="http://www.canoe.ca/NewsStand/LondonFreePress/News/2004/03/20/388709.html">London Free Press</a>
TORONTO -- Staring down the barrel of a federal election anticipated within weeks, three would-be leaders of the Conservative party of Canada all claimed last night to be the most representative general to lead the charge against Paul Martin's Liberals. In a final appeal to about 250,000 eligible party members -- the balance of whom vote today -- Stephen Harper tried to breach the perceived gaps in his national appeal, while rivals Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach worked to exploit it.
While Harper claimed he is capable of "tearing down walls and of building bridges," Stronach and Clement both claimed to be the only truly unifying forces in the newly merged party poised to take on the Liberals in an election that could come as early as May or June.
"We are deciding between a leader who can win in every part of this country and stop 11 more years of Liberal government," said Stronach.
Clement called himself the leader who could "speak to the former members of both parties, build bridges and bring the best from each together -- make our party whole, strong and ready to govern."
With most party members going to the polls today at individual riding stations scattered across the country, the real audience for yesterday's closing speeches was nowhere near the Toronto Convention Centre, but rather watching events unfold on televisions in their living rooms.
Harper, who polls indicated had a healthy lead heading into the vote, appeared to generate the most excitement among the 1,200-plus people at the convention with a speech that attacked Martin's Liberals and virtually ignored his leadership opponents.
Stronach, the auto parts heiress who's had trouble shaking her image as a manufactured candidate, made a show of tossing her scripted speech before delivering exactly the same stilted lines she's been repeating during eight weeks of campaigning.
And Clement appeared to cement his third-place status with a professionally delivered speech that fell flat beyond the crowd of his supporters.
The only controversy of the evening was Stronach's slick, pre-speech video, which opened with glowing words from former Progressive Conservative leader and merger negotiator Peter MacKay.
Later MacKay -- who has remained neutral as the convention's co-chairperson -- admitted he was unaware until Wednesday Stronach was going to use his segment in her video.
"I voluntarily gave commentary on Belinda and the role that she played, it was not meant to be partisan. I called all of the other leaders immediately afterwards and said, 'Look, this is what I've done and I offer you the same,' " MacKay said.
Most of the rancour, however, played out behind the scenes yesterday in Toronto.
Harper's speech directly parried his opponents' most cutting thrusts.
Clement and Stronach have pointedly accused Harper of alienating various regions and being unable to unify elements of the former Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties.
Harper's been pilloried for writing that Alberta, his adopted province, should erect "firewalls" to protect the province's resource wealth and political jurisdiction from Ottawa, while claiming that federal policies toward Atlantic Canada have created a "culture of defeat."
Stronach, who preceded Harper on the stage, stepped away from the podium and made a show of tearing up her stock campaign speech.
Her entreaties, however, were familiar to anyone who has followed her campaign, including a slightly self-mocking reference to growing a bigger economic pie. Her foremost argument was that Harper simply can't win.
CBC-TV reported yesterday it had obtained a draft of the new party's policy options hammered out by the party caucus, which the network said would be presented to the leader at the end of the convention. Among other recommendations, it suggests making all House of Commons votes free except for budgets.
Today, delegates will hear an address by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. He raised eyebrows yesterday with his observation that the Conservatives probably won't form the next federal government, saying the new party has only "a very, very slim chance, let's be honest about it," CTV quoted Klein as saying.
WHAT THEY SAID
"We are deciding between a leader who can win in every part of this country and stop 11 more years of Liberal government."
"I've talked to lots of Westerners who feel very strongly that they have to make the breakthrough in central Canada."
"(My record is one of) tearing down walls and of building bridges."
John Laschinger, Stronach's campaign strategist
"Comments he (Harper) has made in the past have left a bad taste (in Atlantic Canada). Harper has a problem in Quebec as well."