Christine Elliott wants to rebuild Ont. PCs

Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliott at Queen's Park. (Antonella Artuso/QMI Agency Files)

Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliott at Queen's Park. (Antonella Artuso/QMI Agency Files)

Christina Blizzard, Queen's Park Columnist

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

TORONTO -- To no one's great surprise, Christine Elliott was quick to declare herself a candidate for PC leader Tim Hudak's job Wednesday.

She raised eyebrows in declaring her candidacy before Hudak officially steps down, July 2.

Elliott's now the candidate to beat.

A lawyer, the mother of triplets, the widow of former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, she didn't mince words when she talked about where she wants to take the party.

She made it clear it's not about moving to the left or the right. It's not about ideological labels.

It's about taking the party back to its grassroots.

"We need to go back and rebuild our party from the ground up, and it starts by listening to all of our members and by listening to all Ontarians," she told reporters.

"We simply need to take our party in a new way forward," she said. "It's no more complicated than that.

"While it's simple, it's not easy."

Whoever does win the leadership is going to face a tough, uphill slog.

Tories face many challenges.

First, they have to find a way to win seats in urban Ontario. They risk becoming a rural rump party and will never form government if they continue to be shut out of the vote-rich areas of Toronto, Ottawa and London.

Former leader John Tory was starting to do that, but his work has been left to wither on the vine. The Tories need to find a provincial equivalent of Jason Kenney, who can make inroads with different cultural communities on behalf of the PCs.

Then they need to find issues that connect with the middle class. It's something they haven't been able to do since the Common Sense Revolution swept Mike Harris into the premier's office in 1995.

The Tories need to appeal to populist pocketbook issues the same way the NDP did in the June 12 vote.

Elliott is uniquely placed to do that.

Whoever does take on the top PC job knows they're leaving themselves open to character assassination by Working Families.

The powerful union-backed group has targeted every Tory leader since Ernie Eves with slick, U.S.-produced attack ads.

Elliott is unassailable on that front.

It would be shockingly inappropriate for Working Families to target the popular lawyer and mother of a developmentally delayed son. She's a respected and tireless advocate for the disabled community.

Elliott is highly regarded by politicians of all stripes and any assault on her character would backfire badly.

She has some powerful MPPs backing her. Norm Miller from Parry Sound-Muskoka, Bill Walker from Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Jeff Yurek from Elgin-Middlesex-London, Todd Smith from Prince Edward-Hastings and Michael Harris from Kitchener-Conestoga were at her side when she made her announcement.

Tories will pick an interim leader July 2. Jim Wilson (Simcoe-Grey) and John Yakabuski (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke) are both in the running -- and neither of them will run for the leadership.

Tories will decide on a date for the leadership convention at a meeting of the party's executive July 5.

While Elliott is clearly the frontrunner, other MPPs are likely to join the race. Nepean-Carleton's Lisa MacLeod will likely be a contender, as could Nipissing's Vic Fedeli. A handful of federal MPs are also likely to join the fray.

Elliott made it clear that while she's mild-mannered, she has the inner strength it's going to take to bring the party back from the wilderness.

She may be soft-spoken, but she's no pushover.

"I am a lot tougher than people think. I think the experiences I have had in the last few months have demonstrated that," she said.

Tory leadership campaigns are notoriously scorched earth, take-no-prisoners events.

Rebuilding the shattered party and uniting its different factions will be the easy task.

Surviving the campaign is the tough part.

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