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Trouble in Toryland?

The editorial board of the Winnipeg Free Press knew something was wrong.

The "race" to replace Stuart Murray as leader of the Manitoba P.C.'s was more than lacklustre. It was downright strange.

Instead of using the opportunity to float bold ideas that would attract voters, the contenders were announcing eye-glazing platforms about obscure party rules.

The FP even wrote an editorial asking "What gives?"

Their first mistake was relying on the newspaper's Legislature reporters to give them a clue. They should know, by now, that if you have questions, you go to The Black Rod. Because we were thinking the exact same thing. What gives? Only, we knew where to go for the answer---the blogosphere.

Political reporting is usually peppered with anonymous sources---Insider Abe spinning here and Backroom Bob spinning there, all on the understanding that their insights are "not for attribution." But if you know where to go on the blogosphere, you'll find a sea of party members, insiders, and the occasional elected official posting comments unfiltered by reporters.

Many of the posts are by Anonymous, Anonymous, and even Anonymous. Some are by identifiable sources. Some by posters using pseudonyms. It's like listening to a party line (no pun intended) , as the commenters speak with one another, float rumours, pass on tips, and, the blog specialty, correct misinformation.

If you know how to listen, you can learn a lot. And we did. What we learned explained a lot, even as it shocked us.

For a start, we learned how weak the Conservative Party is in Manitoba.

No wonder the NDP aren't quaking in their boots over the series of scandals that would have brought down any other government.

The best estimate of membership in the Progressive Conservative Party is 5,000 to 6,000. Yikes. Can it be true? One blog commenter used that figure in two separate posts, without challenge or contradiction from known Party stalwarts. We think it is true.

Only five or six thousand members? This explains why the candidates for leadership started their campaigns with obtuse statements about policy votes, taking back the party (from who?), establishing new party offices, creating new party policy vice presidents. They're not talking to the population at large, they're talking to the true believers.

But there's not enough of those true believers out there (and according to commenter Chris, in 8 Winnipeg ridings there isn't even a functioning riding association). This could spell trouble with a capital 'T' in River City.

That's why at least two of the leadership candidates---Ron Schuler and Hugh McFadyen (we're not sure about Ken Waddell)--have an unspoken agenda. They're campaigning for the eyes and ears of federal Liberals, more than Manitoba conservatives.

They think that the Tories cannot defeat the NDP without appealing to federal Liberal voters. Hence the stress on appearing "moderate". Stress, hell, they spell it out in every policy statement.

We're moderate. We want to be in the moderate middle. Have we mentioned how moderate we are?

And it might explain why candidate Hugh McFadyen was so reluctant to go after Liberal Reg Alcock, even to the point of trying to undermine the nomination of Rod Bruinooge, who eventually knocked Reg off his throne.

When a party insider told us months ago that angling for Liberal voter support was the provincial Conservative Party strategy, we thought he was just being pessimistic about his Party's chances in the next election.

We didn't know, then, how low the membership was. Now his comments make new sense.

From what we heard Thursday on CJOB, Waddell is taking a different tack. He wants to attact voters by telling them what conservatism means. It doesn't sound like he's about to temper his campaign to win liberals, either small and large L.

This could cause some consternation in the other camps as the other contenders try to suck up to Liberals without badmouthing a fellow Tory.

The campaign has another six weeks to go before the members, however many there are, cast their ballots for a new leader. It could still be an interesting campaign.

Members got a sampling of the candidates at last night's fundraising dinner.

The night was a reflection of the personalities of the candidates - Ken Waddell's suite was low-key and the drinkers in the crowd quickly moved on to wetter climbs; McFadyen's suite attracted a packed crowd that dispersed early; and Schuler knew enough to keep his hospitality suite open longer than anyone else so people could linger at their leisure.

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