OTTAWA -- Former Ontario health minister Tony Clement charged into the federal Conservative leadership race yesterday on a thinly veiled anybody-but-Stephen-Harper platform. But Clement faces a daunting task in his bid to topple the former Canadian Alliance leader and his powerful base of western support. He will also have to battle for turf in his home province, where autoparts magnate Belinda Stronach is set to launch her campaign.
"What I have detected for many weeks now is a hunger for a choice, a feeling that this new party needs a new leader," Clement said as he announced his candidacy.
The newly merged party's mood, he claimed, is demanding "something new, and yet credible and experienced."
Clement, 42, is just the second formally declared candidate, following Harper into the fray.
Stronach, a 37-year-old millionaire from north Toronto who has never sought elected office, will announce her bid next week -- less than nine weeks before members of the old Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties vote for the new leader of their merger.
B.C. MP Chuck Strahl is widely expected to take a pass, as have Tories Peter MacKay, Jim Prentice and others.
Both Clement and Stronach enter the race far behind Harper in terms of organizational strength. The campaign rules, however, go a long way to counterbalance Harper's Alliance foundation in Western Canada.
Conservative members in every federal riding will vote for their leader of choice, with each riding worth 100 points and the spoils divided proportionately. A riding in Quebec with 50 party members carries as much weight as one in Alberta with 2,000 -- and Quebec has more ridings than Alberta and B.C. combined.
Clement is clearly appealing to the regional disparities.
"Our new leader must take a party that is strong today in some regions and turn it into a party that can speak to all regions of Canada, East and West, rural and urban, English and French," he said.
Clement dodged a question as to whether Harper is electable in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
Harper issued a statement welcoming Clement to the race and stating that his entry "will give people a meaningful choice." But Clement's performance left some Harper supporters fuming.
"What's interesting is that he didn't seem to have any other issues he could point to other than, 'We need a new leader and here I am,' " said MP Scott Reid, a Harper supporter.