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Manitoba Conservatives seek a Wizard in the Land of Oz

Manitoba Conservatives are green with envy.

They can only stare slackjawed at the federal Liberal leadership race. With each passing day another contender announces. Some days two.

Men. Women. Professional intellectuals. Francophones. Former NDP Premiers. Turncoat Tories. Ex-NHLers.

All running to lead a party that will go down in history as the most crooked in modern memory.'That shoulda been us -- without the crooked part ' they say in Tory households across the province.

The Manitoba party is having its own leadership race, and hardly anyone knows or cares.

The race was supposed to re-energize the party in the run-up to the next provincial election. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.Stuart Murray's idea of leadership was to turn the Conservative Party into NDP-lite. The electorate would come around, given enough time, he said. But with the NDP reeling under the Crocus scandal, Conservative supporters were stunned to see how toothless Murray was.

He had spent so long being 'nice' that when it came time to go for the jugular, he just sort of gummed the government's neck and seemed queasy at the idea of drawing blood. When his right-hand man defected to run as a federal Liberal, right in the middle of the embarassing Gomery Inquiry, Murray had breakfast with him and wished him well.

To the Caucus Dorothies, this was the last straw. The curtain had been ripped aside and the Wizard revealed as a shrivelled Milquestoast. A search for a new Wizard was launched immediately.

Today, months later, the Party quails at the results of that search --- a Cowardly Lion, a Scarecrow, and a Tin Man.

The Cowardly Lion, we all know, is Hugh McFadyen. Despite his self-proclaimed political experience in a million campaigns, he distinguished himself by chickening out in a race against Reg Alcock in the federal riding Winnipeg South.As soon as he thought he couldn't win, he abandoned the candidacy as fast as his patrician legs could carry him, running back to the waiting arms of the provincial Conservative party establishment which agreed to back him in the byelection in Fort Whyte.

The only obstacle was Rod Bruinooge, the man Hugh beat to run against Alcock. With the backroom assist, Hugh won the provincial nomination, and, to Hugh's great disappointment, Bruinooge went on to defeat Alcock, become an MP, and demonstrate what a true winner looks like.Hugh took the "yellow"-dog riding of Fort Whyte and with a few months of Legislature experience under his belt, he announced he was the man to lead the party.

His formal announcement went well, if you overlook the snickers at his phony tan, his super-whitened teeth that rivalled Tony Curtis' choppers in The Great Race, and the photos of him looking "casual" in what passes for casual at an Ivy-League prep-school.

He has stood out in the leadership race by never uttering the words "Crocus Inquiry". The consensus is that he's the worst speaker, putting people to sleep rather than inspiring them with a fire in his belly.

The Scarecrow in the race is Ken Waddell. His campaign theme of Fight the Socialists scares even Tory voters. Waddell had two strikes against him coming into the race. He wasn't from Winnipeg, the home of the major news media. And he was a farmer, which puts him in the esoteric category, along with people like mathematicians who study differential equations, for all Winnipeg reporters know about agriculture.

Waddell has scored big in the personal appearances track of the race. Everyone says he's the best speaker of the three and even the supporters of other camps wish their candidate had Waddell's fire and gift of gab. Especially since it was this very lack of passion that felled Stu Murray.

The Tin Man, is a no-brainer. Ron Schuler. He thought a good way to start his campaign was by attacking the party and the MLA's who sit under the party banner. "Take back the Party" was his theme. Open nominations to challenge any sitting member was plank #2.

Let's see, so you're saying the P.C. members of the Legislature don't have your full support, but you expect the public to vote for them anyway. That's well thought out. No wonder he doesn't have any caucus support.

The campaign started out with the candidates playing 'nice' just like Stu taught 'em. They wouldn't attack one another, they said. Take the high road. Debate policy not personality. Blah blah blah.

Yeah, you know it, that didn't last long.This is the first leadership election where the winner is picked by the members instead of delegates. When it appeared that Schuler sold the most new memberships, the sniping started.Waddell tried to debate issues, but the other camps were too busy throwing snide shots at each other.

McFadyen supporters started raising "questions" about Schuler's healthy support in Christian communities. Not that there's anything wrong with it, you understand.

Schuler's people responded with "questions" about whether McFadyen was a Scientologist (surely an obvious cheap shot -ed.) and whether he had once claimed to be Metis to win Metis votes.

This last point is more intriguing than the MSM has acknowledged. There is a question about 1200 memberships allegedly sold by the Manitoba Metis Federation or to MMF members.

Block voting always raises legitimate questions. Do the members of the block all know they've become members of the Party? Who paid for the memberships, the individuals or the MMF? Who will be filling out the mail-in ballots, the individuals or someone on behalf of the block? This could be embarassing to the Party in the event of a close race.

But equally embarassing is the Party establishment's ruling designed to help the Cowardly Lion. It turns out that about 1200 memberships will lapse by voting day. In other words, they will not be members on the day members will decide who becomes the leader. The Party decided to mail out membership renewals along with mail-in ballots, to allow these people to renew and vote at the same time.

The bulk of the lapsed memberships are in one riding, Turtle Mountain, and suspicion is that they belong to McFadyen supporters. So he becomes the sole beneficiary of the ruling. The funny part is that the renewals are in coded envelopes and there was speculation it was possible to see who these people voted for. If McFadyen wins by a thousand votes, there could be a big stink, just the sort of thing the Party is desperate to avoid.

But desperate enough to fix the election to prevent a win by Schuler or Waddell?

When the Caucus Dorothies pulled back the curtain, they found more than a defanged Wizard.They discovered an enfeebled party with only 5000 or 6000 members (20 percent of whom hadn't renewed by day membership sales closed.)

They discovered a backroom willing to do anything to promote their own candidate, whoever got the official nod.

They discovered a party so demoralized and rudderless that nobody wanted to be leader.

Which may be why even the partisans, the foot soldiers you would think would be the most enthusiastic, are talking about losing the next election, and maybe even the one after that.

And the Dorothies got scared and ran down the Yellow Brick Road back to the Caucus room, leaving The Black Rod to play the role of Toto, and bark, and bark, and bark.

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