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Harper is the leader for the Conservatives

With the Conservative Party of Canada set to choose a new leader within days, Opposition Leader Stephen Harper seems poised to win, perhaps on the first ballot. That's as it should be. Mr. Harper is the only one of the three candidates with any hope of mounting a respectable challenge to Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberals in the next election.

A Harper victory will disappoint many of the conservative-leaning centrists who lauded the union of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives into a single party. They had hoped to find a new leader with broad appeal -- someone who might draw conservatives all across the country. New Brunswick's Bernard Lord, Quebec's Jean Charest or Alberta's Ralph Klein might have fitted that bill.

But for reasons of their own -- which we suspect included a healthy aversion to ceding real power, albeit regional, in exchange for the privilege of losing nationally to Mr. Martin -- none of these worthies wanted the job. That left the field to former Ontario health minister Tony Clement, auto-parts heiress Belinda Stronach and Mr. Harper. The Opposition Leader is not an ideal candidate, by any means. But he's the best on offer.

Mr. Clement came into the leadership race saddled with the former Ontario Tory government's disastrous campaign in last fall's provincial election, which cost him his own seat. He quickly set himself apart with a thick file of innovative, if untested, ideas -- most notably his plan for radical reform of the tax system. He has the potential to play the role Scott Brison did before he defected to the Liberals -- that of idea generator and debate stimulator.

But Mr. Clement's public performances, while impassioned, have lacked gravitas. He took clear delight in the cut and thrust of argument, but seemed often to take even greater delight in his own cleverness. His creditable performance during the Ontario SARS crisis notwithstanding, he began with next to no visibility outside his home province, and has gained little during the campaign. Polls show him running a distant third.

Ms. Stronach, the former chief executive officer of the Magna auto-parts empire, entered the race in an explosion of publicity that put her rivals to shame. And her entry was welcome. She offered an avenue to conservatives determined to stamp a new look on the party. Her support for same-sex marriage put her on the progressive side of the Tory spectrum. Conservative heavyweights such as Mike Harris and Bill Davis lined up behind her.

But there was a mystery at the heart of the Stronach campaign, and it became increasingly vexing as the weeks passed. What possessed her, and her backers, to believe she could lead a national party, let alone the country? For beyond those early, obvious pluses -- freshness, the possibility of a more centrist voice -- Ms. Stronach has utterly failed to find her footing. Her stump speech is a pastiche of platitudes ("we have to grow the economy") that could have been lifted from any conservative policy platform of the past decade. She speaks little or no French. Her debate performances -- of which there have been only two, her campaign team having decided to limit her exposure in unscripted settings -- have been execrable. At times, she appears literally not to understand what she's talking about. No one should fault Ms. Stronach's zeal for public service. But she should have heeded the advice of those who urged her, according to one senior Tory source, to "wait a bit."

Which leads us to Mr. Harper. In crowded settings (which is part of the job description, after all), he often looks as though he's just bitten a lemon. He's hobbled by controversial past statements -- criticism of the Atlantic Canadian work ethic, a tacit endorsement of Alberta's go-it-alone tendency -- that have marked him as having limited appeal beyond the West.

That said, his performance as Opposition Leader has been competent and steady, in marked contrast with his predecessor, the hapless Stockwell Day. In debates, Mr. Harper consistently conveys a sense of solidity, intelligence and decency. His French is better than passable. His grasp of the issues is thorough, evidence of his early days as an ideas man for Preston Manning's Reform Party. The federal sponsorship scandal has given the Opposition a cudgel with which to hammer the Liberals, and Mr. Harper appears to be making the most of it in the Commons. If he can show Canadians that he has interests beyond bearing Alberta's standard in Ottawa, and that he can be socially progressive, he could make inroads in Ontario. He has already shown a capacity to grow in the job -- he did, after all, play an instrumental role in uniting the two parties -- and may be expected to grow further.

Both his competitors should run in the next election. Mr. Clement should run because, with his energy and ideas, he has much to contribute. Ms. Stronach should run because, if she has a taste for politics, she should get some experience under her belt. But in the present contest, Mr. Harper is the best choice.

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