OTTAWA, April 1 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief rival in an election expected within months has struggled to make himself known to voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic - and for Erin O'Toole, time may be running out.
O'Toole, a 48-year-old ex-soldier and one-time Cabinet minister, won the leadership of the right-leaning Conservatives last August and stresses the need for a fiscally prudent recovery plan. Trudeau's Liberals have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into aid programs, racking up record-high budget deficits and national debt levels.
If O'Toole loses the next election, he could well be forced out, leaving the party looking for its fifth leader in six years and handing the free-spending Liberals and their environmentally minded "build back better" agenda a long-term advantage.
It would be tough for anyone to take on the Trudeau brand, especially during a pandemic. Trudeau's late father, Pierre, ranks as the third-longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.
Trudeau, 49, dominates the airwaves, holding news conferences at least twice a week, often to announce millions of dollars in new pandemic support or details on vaccines.
By contrast, O'Toole's late-night leadership acceptance speech in August was almost ignored.
"If people see Erin O'Toole in a headline, they're like 'Who?' If we did our own research into public opinion, I'll bet you an unnamed 'Trudeau rival' would poll higher than Erin O'Toole," said one well-placed Conservative who backs the party's leader.
"He's at a huge disadvantage, at least as far as being able to brand himself," said the Conservative, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.
In fact, O'Toole launched a Twitter campaign last month saying: "Let me reintroduce myself." O'Toole has just 124,000 Twitter followers compared with 5.5 million for Trudeau.
The Conservative leader is pressed for time. Liberal insiders say Trudeau, who barely hung onto office with a minority in the October 2019 election, is preparing for a snap vote in the second half of 2021, about two years early, to seek another majority.
With a minority, Trudeau must depend on support from opposition legislators to govern.
The scale of the pandemic, said Conservative strategist Chad Rogers, means opposition leaders "have no podium until the day of an election."
O'Toole also faces the challenge of leading a party that has lost two elections since holding power from 2006-2015 and contains social conservatives and right-leaning moderates.
Billing himself as a regular family man best-placed to grow the party's base, O'Toole won the leadership after predecessor Andrew Scheer quit over his failure to win in 2019 despite a series of scandals surrounding Trudeau.
O'Toole took a hard line during the leadership campaign to woo the right, but then edged toward the center, talking up the importance of labor unions and social equality in a bid to gain support, especially in voter-rich cities. The change in tack upset some members, say insiders, and may not be working.
"He's not finding the traction he needs towards the center, which is where I think he's figured out the party needs to go. ... It's just not working yet," said Shachi Kurl, executive director of polling firm Angus Reid.
Kurl says the Conservatives could win if they capture enough support from voters concerned about deficits. Angus Reid's most recent poll had the Liberals leading Conservatives by 35% to 31%, not enough to secure a Trudeau majority.
Conservatives publicly say they back O'Toole. In private, four insiders complained about mixed messaging and his trouble remotely managing 120 legislators - the biggest opposition grouping in Canadian history.
"Large caucuses are not meant to live in opposition for a long time and they like to test new leaders," Rogers said in an interview.
The internal tensions emerged at a policy convention last month when - against O'Toole's wishes - most delegates voted against recognizing climate change as a real threat.
The Conservative leader, aware of polls showing most Canadians worry about climate change, is promising a green plan of his own. He brushed off the vote and declared the debate on global warming over, but the rift was clear.
Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann said it was always difficult for opposition leaders to become known and that was particularly true during a pandemic.
"We have had to rethink how we get out there ... but it's a challenge we're tackling head-on," he said by phone.
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