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Kevin O’Leary’s entry could push some contenders out of Conservative race

So that was it? After all the tease and self-hype, Kevin O'Leary's campaign launch was a one-minute Facebook video and some interviews on morning TV. No rally, no cheers, no big event. Mr. O'Leary slipped into the campaign like he was taping a new show.

But his arrival will shake the Conservative leadership contest. Win or lose, his fame will help him suck up a lot of the oxygen of the race. And some of the other candidates will soon struggle to find breathing room. They are already trying to push back, charging, for example, that Mr. O'Leary is really a Liberal.

Name recognition alone won't win this leadership race; even popularity with voters isn't going to do it. But Mr. O'Leary's fame, at least in English Canada, will help him do concrete things that really do matter in a leadership race: raising money and signing up new party members.

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For the 13 others already in the race, that's bad news. There's only so much to go around, and a famous name such as Kevin O'Leary – a star known for direct talk and the kind of no-nonsense, low-taxes, pro-business approach that appeals to Conservatives – is likely to scoop up a big portion of the donations.

Maxime Bernier – the Beauce MP who out-raised all other candidates in the third quarter of 2016 – probably doesn't have to fear. His father, former MP Gilles Bernier, said Tuesday night that he expects Mr. O'Leary's entry will hurt the other unilingual anglophone candidates, but not his son. Kellie Leitch, second in fundraising in the same quarter, might be okay, too.

But for some of the others, particularly those who joined the race relatively late and haven't pulled in as many dollars, such as Ontario MPs Lisa Raitt and Erin O'Toole, this could be the big squeeze.

In this race, serious candidates need money. Even for those who are running without a hope of winning, it takes about $100,000 to pay party fees and deposits and run a shoestring campaign. But it will take many times that for a major campaign. And it must come in donations of $1,550 or less.

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It's a race to win the votes of party members, not broad public goodwill, and in the Conservative Party, each riding is weighted equally, so a well-oiled organization might gain more by signing up 20 members in Gaspé than a thousand in Calgary. Money pays for a candidate to travel and also for staff to build an organization to recruit members across the country. Mr. O'Leary's entry might reduce contenders to no-hopers.

So how will the others try to stop him? For starters, some blast his lack of French, his past comments dismissing the need to learn it, and his decision to skip the French-language debate then jump into the race the next day.

Then there's the charge that Mr. O'Leary was never a Conservative and isn't one now.

That first criticism is that Mr. O'Leary was never a big-C Conservative – that he has no history in the party. Even during his launch interview on CTV's Your Morning, interviewer Ben Mulroney raised his dismissal of the Conservative brand in an interview last year. "I don't give a damn about the party," he told Toronto Life. "They're losers." Mr. O'Leary's response now? "There's 10,000 hours of things I said. They don't mean anything," he told Mr. Mulroney. "They're not policy."

It's hard to tell whether that will matter. Many Conservatives might like an outsider. But not a liberal. And some charge he's not a small-c conservative.

In an interview, Mr. O'Toole said he gets Mr. O'Leary's approach to the economy, "but on other issues, I find he's not actually a Conservative. He's probably more Liberal, with respect to the military, Canada's role in the world, the gun registry and issues like that."

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Mr. O'Leary's comments about the military in a December, 2016, interview, when he said there is "there is nothing proud about being a warrior" and that the Canadian Forces should only be deployed for peacekeeping, were blasted by other candidates as disrespectful – and Liberal.

That can certainly dent Mr. O'Leary's bid. But his fame will help. He doesn't have to scramble to get noticed, in the hope that donors and members will learn his name. He will automatically suck up attention, and that's likely to squeeze some of the other candidates out of contention.

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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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