Leadership contenders unfazed by poll results
Tories say party members decide leader, not public
Caroline Mallan
Contenders in the race to replace Mike Harris as Ontario's premier say poor polling results are not worrying since the next Conservative leader will be chosen by card-carrying party members, not the general public.

The Toronto Star-Ekos Research poll of general voters gave a commanding lead to former finance minister Ernie Eves, with Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer in second place.

Labour Minister Chris Stockwell, Health Minister Tony Clement and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty all trailed badly in the poll, with support in the single digits.

Eves was the only Tory in the poll who was also preferred by voters to Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, while Witmer trailed McGuinty is general voter support by just one point.

But Dan Tisch, a spokesperson for the Clement campaign, says their polling among party members who will be voting on March 23 shows their candidate in second place behind Eves.

Tisch said since the one-member-one-vote system is weighted to give each of Ontario's 103 ridings equal say in choosing new leader, on-the-ground organization will prove essential for the eventual winner of the five-way race.

"(The Star-Ekos poll is) interesting but we don't find it very relevant since it's not the people who are going to make the decision," Tisch said of the sample of 811 Ontarians. "Tony's got the best riding organization out there and we think that's going to pay off."

Each riding is given 100 "points" in the race and all of the votes cast in that riding are awarded proportionally to each candidate. For example, if Eves was to collect 35 per cent of the votes cast in a riding, he would be given 35 points toward his provincial total. The first candidate with a clear majority, or 5,151 points or just over half of the available 10,300 points, wins the contest.

A final decision is expected to take at least two ballots on March 23 and the party says it is prepared for as many as four.

`(The poll is) interesting but we don't find it very relevant since it's not the people who are going to make the decision.'

Dan Tisch,

Clement campaign

Tisch said Eves' popularity with the general public is largely due to his name-recognition after more than five years spent as finance minister and deputy premier in the Harris government. The Flaherty campaign got a boost over the weekend from its own poll that shows the finance minister in a toss-up with Eves.

Twenty-nine per cent of respondents said they would vote for Flaherty, while 27 per cent backed Eves. Witmer trailed in third place with 10 per cent, Clement at 8 per cent and Stockwell at 5 per cent. Sixteen per cent were undecided.

The poll, conducted by Winnipeg-based Western Opinion Research on Friday and Saturday and made available to The Canadian Press, canvassed only card-carrying Conservatives who planned to vote in the leadership contest March 23.

"It's hands-on proof that this is a competitive two-way race between Ernie Eves and Jim Flaherty," Flaherty aide Dan Robertson said yesterday.

However, the Western poll also suggests Flaherty's aggressive campaign, in which he has promised to ban teacher strikes, outlaw homelessness and curb welfare eligibility, appears to have alienated many Tories as well.

When asked who they would never vote for, Flaherty and Witmer were tied at 19 per cent. In contrast, only 12 per cent said they would never vote for Eves.

The Star-Ekos results were good news for Witmer's campaign, which says it matches what her supporters are hearing in ridings around the province. "As far as all the people we've talked to are concerned there are only two candidates who can beat Dalton McGuinty and we're very upbeat about that," said campaign organizer Rod Phillips.

Beverly Hammond, a spokesperson for the Eves campaign, said the Star-Ekos results are in keeping with what they've been hearing. She added that party members are looking for the candidate most able to beat McGuinty. "I think party members are thinking that way and they should be, it's imperative that we win the next election," she said.

Liberal party president Greg Sorbara said the poll, which showed the Liberals with almost 50 per cent of decided voter support in the province, compared to 38 per cent for the Tories, is good news for his party.

He said the Liberals are confident that the publicity surrounding the leadership is the main reason for Eves' numbers and that they will not survive the test of time.

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