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Kevin O’Leary’s absenteeism amounts to a major weakness in his electability

If you want to run the country, but can't find the time to debate how it should be run, why not go to your other country to talk about how that one should be run?

After all, Kevin O'Leary, the Conservative leadership candidate, can argue quite neatly that none of this business about skipping debates or spending half his time in the United States has stopped him from becoming a front-runner. And if Conservative Party members don't care about potential leaders showing up for their party's debates, why should anyone else?

The problem, for those Conservative Party members, is that it amounts to a major weakness in what Mr. O'Leary touts as his strong suit: his electability. Kevin O'Leary is bad at masking the fact that it's all about Kevin O'Leary.

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Motivations matter to voters. They don't insist you be sensitive; in fact, they sometimes like a leader who is a tough, arrogant jerk – as long as you are tough on their behalf, working for their interests. In fact, Mr. O'Leary's TV persona, Mr. Wonderful, is just that: a harsh, money-driven venture capitalist who claims his unsentimental approach is what the entrepreneur/contestants need most.

But in politics, Mr. O'Leary is sending the message that he's only making a minimal investment in Conservative politics and this whole running Canada thing, and only as far as there's something in it for him.

One can argue that U.S. President Donald Trump also broke all the old rules of politics with a nearly narcissistic campaign. But Mr. Trump's triumph was convincing people he was big enough and independent enough to stand up to Washington insiders and fight for the little guy, and put their country first. Mr. O'Leary dissed the rank and file of his own party, then jetted off to a U.S. TV interview.

On Sunday, Mr. O'Leary skipped a leadership debate in the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence hosted by former Conservative MP and finance minister Joe Oliver. The 13 other candidates showed up, but Mr. O'Leary called Friday to say he couldn't make it. According to campaign spokesman Ari Laskin, Mr. O'Leary had missed his anniversary on March 17 and was going to celebrate with his wife in Miami.

Everyone needs some work-life balance, but this is the third debate that Mr. O'Leary has skipped, including one in Edmonton that he passed over – ostensibly because of format – to hold his own event nearby. In fact, he jumped into the race the morning after the only French-language debate, in Quebec City.

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Sure, Mr. O' Leary doesn't do great in debates, and they raise the risk he'll take a political blow or suffer a face plant. You can see why he'd want to duck. It's just that it's transparently a case of a politician dodging his public responsibilities because there's nothing in it for him. And that just happens to be the thing that people hate most about politicians.

But Mr. O'Leary did show up on an MSNBC interview from Miami, talking about what Mr. Trump should do about health care and tax reform, and how "we" – presumably we Americans – got here. As Liberals gleefully pointed out, that's just the kind of talk that allowed Conservatives to tag former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff with the accusation he was "just visiting." More: When Mr. O'Leary warns in the United States that American corporate taxes are too high to compete with other countries such as Canada, and also warns in Canada that Mr. Trump's coming tax cuts will make Canada uncompetitive, it's hard to tell just who he's rooting for.

Opposing Conservative campaigns jumped on it, of course. "I don't think it's too much to ask that you be in the country to debate," said MP Tony Clement, a senior adviser to rival candidate Maxime Bernier.

For Conservative Party members, a key issue is that Mr. O'Leary is damaging his own electability – and his bid is based on the claim to be the candidate who can beat Liberal PM Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Ignatieff, who had spent years in London and then at Harvard, had trouble convincing Canadian voters he identified with their lives – a doubt the Conservatives fuelled with the slogan, "He didn't come back for you."

Conservatives should expect voters to have the same doubts about Mr. O'Leary, because he keeps sending signals it's about him.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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