It’s D-Day for Progressive Conservative leadership hopefuls.
The deadline for candidates to sell party memberships is 5 p.m. Saturday
Only those who have purchased a $10 Conservative membership can cast a ballot in the one-member-one-vote election this May to seek a successor to former leader Tim Hudak.
Most Tories agree it is a tight race between front-runner MPP Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa) and MP Patrick Brown (Barrie), with MPP Monte McNaughton (Lambton-Kent-Middlesex) holding up the rear.
Elliott, who finished third behind Hudak and former MPP Frank Klees in the 2009 leadership contest, is running as a moderate centrist with the backing of party luminaries like Bill Davis, premier from 1971 to 1985.
She is also supported by her former leadership rivals, MPPs Vic Fedeli (Nipissing) and Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton).
Brown, a federal backbencher, has styled himself as an outsider who will clean house to avoid the mistakes that have caused the Tories to lose four straight elections.
He made headlines Monday by receiving the endorsement of hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, but one of his supporters at Queen’s Park, MPP Rick Nicholls, caused him problems later in the week.
In objecting to the Liberals’ new sex-education curriculum, the creationist Nicholls said it would be “not a bad idea” to allow students to opt out of being taught about evolution.
Brown — like Elliott and McNaughton — distanced himself from those comments.
But the Tory controversy enabled Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals to change the channel from their own problems, especially the Ontario Provincial Police investigation into allegations of bribery in the recent Sudbury byelection.
McNaughton — who is backed by Toronto Councillor Rob Ford, who gained international notoriety for smoking crack cocaine as mayor — is running as the right-wing social conservative in the race.
Wynne, the first lesbian premier in Canadian history, has accused the Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP of being homophobic for suggesting she was not qualified to craft the new sex-education syllabus.
For his part, McNaughton has said that’s “ridiculous.”
After Saturday’s deadline, the campaign to win the hearts and minds of Tories will step up. The three candidates will debate in Toronto on April 15 and on TVOntario on May 1.
The new leader will be announced May 9 at a PC convention in Toronto.