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Stronach: political rookie or savvy operator?

OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF

Her colleagues know her more as the celebrity MP who sends flowers at Christmas than the one who practises brass-knuckle politics.

But with an increasingly large presence in the Conservative Party, and a newly expanded team to advise her, Belinda Stronach is being seen in a different light these days. Savvy retail politician is one characterization MPs are using. Thorn in the side is another.

Ms. Stronach prompted both anger and support this week from her caucus colleagues when she issued a warning about forcing an election before certain portions of the Liberal budget are passed.

Her comments put her at odds with Tory Leader Stephen Harper, who has vowed to try to bring down the minority Liberal government at the first opportunity.

Some see the move as Ms. Stronach's first real effort to engage in the rough-and-tumble of caucus politics, something she'll have to do if she wants to put herself back on the radar as a contender to replace Mr. Harper whenever a leadership race happens to come along.

"She knows exactly what she's doing," said one long-time Tory and senior campaigner. "She comes out this week against the election and says what many people thought. . . . She's beginning to take a series of policy decisions on the youth wing, on equal marriage and that kind of stuff, which sets her apart from others. Anybody who thinks she ran just to be an MP or a cabinet minister is very mistaken."

Since Ms. Stronach was elected last June, many have viewed her as bringing badly needed charisma to the party. Mr. Harper himself said so one year ago after besting her in the leadership campaign. But the 38-year-old former auto-parts executive has also been extremely busy travelling the country, boning up on a number of policy issues and nailing down the "people" side of politics.

She also has developed a substantial team around her that, just recently, was augmented by John Weir, who was a principal secretary to Ontario premier Mike Harris. She has hired others, including Mark Entwistle, once press secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"Good advice isn't a bad thing," said Ms. Stronach in a recent interview. ". . .You find the best people designed to bring about the best result."

Ms. Stronach has turned some heads for her willingness to speak her mind on certain issues and thus try to capture a portion of the party as her own. She has said she supports same-sex marriage, a position contrary to that of most of her caucus colleagues. As well, she backed the creation of a youth wing of the party, an idea that was voted down at the Conservatives' policy convention in March.

Many believe she has taken these positions for two reasons -- to build the moderate side of the party and become its champion.

She has also taken an increasingly large -- and visible role -- on policy issues such as the party's position on opening the U.S. border to Canadian cattle, pushing for more foreign aid and improving Canada's relationship with the United States.

Asked if her remarks this week had anything to do with insulating herself from blame if the Conservatives force a spring election and it goes badly, Ms. Stronach says no. The point, she says, was simply to be accountable to the residents of her riding.

Newmarket-Aurora, an urban riding just outside Toronto, includes many commuters who would benefit from the plans in the Liberal budget to spend more money on roads, public transit and other transportation needs.

"I want to make sure that we properly address the issues that are important to the citizens of Newmarket-Aurora -- public transit, transportation, which are consistent with the cities infrastructure program."

Since being elected, Ms. Stronach has also been diligent about meeting people across the country. Last December, for example, she took up the invitation of an Alberta feedlot owner and farmer to visit his business and see for herself the devastation that the mad-cow crisis has visited upon the region.

"I applaud her for coming out here and making herself intelligent about it," said Rick Paskal of Picture Butte.

"One thing Belinda does know is business. She recognizes good farms and well-run businesses and commented on the cleanliness and that kind of stuff. I was impressed."

In the aftermath, Ms. Stronach and a group of other parliamentarians, including local MP Rick Casson and agriculture critic Diane Finley, moved to intervene in a Montana state court case that is keeping the U.S. border closed to Canadian cattle.

Mr. Paskal still has Ms. Stronach's phone numbers and calls occasionally. A strong Conservative, Mr. Paskal shrugs off any talk of Ms. Stronach for leader.

"I think that question maybe is kind of out of place right now," Mr. Paskal said.

"Ms. Stronach is a very, very capable person and I support her in the position that [Mr. Harper] has her in right now," he said.

The outreach efforts remind some of Mr. Mulroney, who also was well-known for taking time to cultivate caucus members. Ms. Stronach is active in this area, too.

Last Christmas, for example, floral arrangements showed up at the doorsteps of Conservative MPs across the country. One Westerner assumed the flowers were from a local company before seeing that Ms. Stronach's name was on the card.

"I was surprised," said the Westerner. "I don't even send Christmas cards out to my colleagues."

Still, there are those who think Ms. Stronach may be stepping out a little too often.

One MP, who calls himself a fan, said this week that Ms. Stronach's election interjection did not endear her to caucus members.

"I think it was a real mistake in a lot of ways," said the MP. "It demonstrated some political immaturity. To feel you have to put this out in public, no matter the cost to the party. It hurt the party, and secondly, it hurt her."

If Ms. Stronach hopes to garner support for another leadership bid, it's important that she not stray from the script.

The MP added that Ms. Stronach's decision to hire staff outside her normal parliamentary budget also rankles some.

Almost no one will talk publicly of Ms. Stronach as a leadership candidate, including her supporters, who know that such discussions would look disloyal to the current leader.

Calgary MP Lee Richardson said the stories about Ms. Stronach's election remarks may be misconstrued.

"In fairness to her, they [the media] look for the wedges, they look for the split, they look for division," said Mr. Richardson. "But she'll pull with the consensus of the caucus. That was never in doubt."

Others say that, given her leadership foray a year ago, Ms. Stronach must be extraordinarily careful because everything she does will be seen through that prism. Her romantic relationship with deputy leader Peter MacKay also raises questions within the party. Fairly or unfairly, some believe the two will end up working together when the time comes that Mr. Harper steps down.

"She's got to be careful not to be perceived as too ambitious here," said one Tory adviser. "She's got capital-L leadership stamped on her."

Asked about her ambitions, Ms. Stronach said the leadership belongs to Mr. Harper, who won it fair and square. Her goals, she said, are first to represent the constituency, do a good job as trade critic and build a "stronger Conservative Party that's modern in its view."

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