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Stronach-MacKay duo making splash at convention

SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER

OTTAWA

hen and Laureen Harper made their grand entrance just after midday yesterday, smiling, holding hands and waving with their free hands as they slowly descended an escalator into the Montreal hallway packed with clapping Conservatives.

But they were just the warm-up act for that other Conservative couple -- Peter MacKay and Belinda Stronach.

Several hours after the Harpers' arrival, Ms. Stronach strode into the convention hallway dressed head-to-toe in St. Patrick's Day green, smiling, greeting and shaking hands with delegates.

In green leather jacket, striped green pants, beige shoes with a hint of green and even green eye shadow, Ms. Stronach, who last year ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Harper for the Conservative leadership and is rumoured to have plans to run again, could not be missed.

Earlier, Mr. MacKay, her boyfriend and Conservative deputy leader who once led the Progressive Conservative Party and is again rumoured to have leadership ambitions, had been making the rounds in the convention hall, scrumming with reporters and meeting delegates.

Attractive, blond, politically ambitious -- and now romantically involved -- Ms. Stronach and Mr. MacKay are a curiosity at this first Tory convention on many fronts.

Not only have they added some star quality to a rather bland party, the couple pose a legitimate threat to Mr. Harper's leadership.

Finding them holding hands or even standing together during this convention, however, might be difficult: "I'm very happy. That's all I can say," Mr. MacKay said yesterday of his relationship with Ms. Stronach. "I'm very glad we're together and we're keeping our personal and professional life separate to the best of our abilities."

Finding them working the crowd, however, will not be so difficult.

Ms. Stronach is playing host to the "Cool Blue" party tonight at a downtown hotel. It's being billed as a party for all things "cool and blue."

Mr. MacKay, meanwhile, is co-hosting a party at a local tavern with Alberta MP James Rajotte tomorrow night.

He says bringing people together at the convention is important.

Both Ms. Stronach and Mr. MacKay say that, for them, this convention is not about leadership or their leadership aspirations.

"The caucus is strongly behind the leader," Ms. Stronach said yesterday. "I'm behind the leader and we've got a lot of work before us to figure out what unites us, what will provide a better quality of life for Canadians and how we can earn the trust and respect of our fellow citizens so they'll vote for us in the next election . . ."

Earlier in the day, Mr. MacKay said: "I'm here fully in support of the leader, fully in support of the efforts that have been made to get us to this point, but we've got more to do and we have to be honest with ourselves in recognizing that there are some hurdles that we have to get over."

Although Mr. MacKay spoke at the convention last night, Ms. Stronach has a lower profile. There were rumours that she was deliberately left off the speakers' list by Mr. Harper because of her leadership ambitions.

Some convention delegates detect an undercurrent of leadership politics.

"Belinda, Peter, Prentice (Calgary Tory MP Jim Prentice) are positioning themselves, no question," said one Winnipeg delegate, who didn't want to give his name.

Said a delegate from Calgary: "Yes, this is a convention. Look up the definition [of convention] in Webster's."

Both Ms. Stronach and Mr. MacKay are working on their French, and a party insider says that the connections they both have to former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney are interesting and strong.

Mr. MacKay's new chief of staff, Shaun Masterson, is a former Mulroney-ite and good friend of former Mulroney executive assistant Bill Pristanski.

Ms. Stronach, meanwhile, continues to be supported by former Mulroney Tories such as Fred Loiselle, the son of former Mulroney cabinet minister Gilles Loiselle.

"I'm sure they'll be highly visible [at the convention]," a veteran Tory said. "They are the antithesis of Stephen Harper in terms of retail politics."

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