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Don Martin: In the heart of Liberal-owned Toronto, an unlikely conservative rock star takes the stage

Campaign mobs can sometimes be fake news.

Organizers can fake the frenzy by booking a room they know is too small and filling it to capacity to create the impression of a delusional crush of support.

Or you can choose a geographic location where your candidate’s support is deepest to present a disproportionate audience like a typical gathering.

But this phenomenon of overflowing audience of Pierre Poilievre left me perplexed, especially after Tuesday evening.

Keep in mind that Toronto is the political home of 25 Liberal MPs out of 25 available seats. This particular venue is in a constituency where the Conservatives finished third in 2021 with just 12% of the vote against a Liberal with four times the number of ballots.

Pierre Poilievre at an event in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Source: @PierrePoilievre / Twitter)In what might have been a normal Conservative candidate roll call show at a bingo hall south of Calgary, the frontman drew around 1,000 Torontonians to a beer hall in the shadow of the CN Tower.

This suggests the majority of participants had a long, busy commute from the suburbs, where the conservative brand has at least a pulse, on a cool, windy night when staying home was a very tempting alternative.

So what is the attraction of cheerleaders?

Poilievre is a face nine out of 10 Canadians still couldn’t choose from a two-person roster.

He’s my deputy and shows up at church basement dinners, community fairs, and Remembrance Day services with a light nod of recognition from the locals.

Yet he struts through a jam-packed room of 700 people with a few hundred more in the adjacent overflow room, a crowd that one curator reluctantly told me even Stephen Harper could not have attracted in as prime minister, and Poilievre is a star rock standing on the Liberal pedestal.

For what it’s worth, with apologies to Buffalo Springfield, there’s something going on here, but it’s not exactly clear.

The owner of the Steam Whistle Brewing Company hall obviously doesn’t know what to make of it. They delivered a letter to attendees stressing that hosting the Poilievre campaign does not align the brewery with its controversial policy positions. It’s a first.

So if that’s not a force of personality – and Poilievre seems to lack the few liters of royal jelly needed to induce mania – it must be his policy.

But even that is a puzzle.

He vows to weed out bureaucratic ‘gatekeepers’ to allow foreign professionals to establish themselves here, not exactly the kind of policy the real conservatives pushed to implement.

And then there’s his housing promise to cut the red tape that is holding back construction to spark a building boom.

A few issues with that. Housing approvals are primarily the responsibility of municipalities, although under provincial control. How a federal government could get through the provincial maze to cut red tape in planning departments is an unlikely mission, even if it uses housing subsidies to spur them to action.

Moreover, the housing construction industry is already operating at full capacity, so unless a Poilievre as premier can produce thousands of province-trained carpenters, plumbers and electricians overnight, he will not there’s no way to create a construction boom that would stimulate supply.

Then there is his veto on buying foreign oil by building pipelines everywhere. But if a pipeline connection to refineries on the east coast cannot be built over Quebec’s objections, where does New Brunswick send the domestic oil to be processed? Again, his rhetoric is divorced from reality.

But leadership campaigns are about getting attention, backed by weak promises of future action.

On this point, Poilievre performs at a level far superior to his seven opponents, half of whom have nothing to do in this race.

Plenty of issues could still hamper Poilievre’s road to the PMO, of course.

To maintain his momentum, Poilievre must feed the seething anger against Justin Trudeau without stoking it too far so that it alienates the middle ground voters the party needs to win the next election.

It is also likely that his target Trudeau will not be the Conservatives’ main rival in the next election. The current Prime Minister is obsolete and ready to be replaced by a more formidable opponent than anyone in the circle on the bridge Chrystia Freeland, Anita Anand or François-Phillippe Champagne.

And the issues Poilievre highlights as liberal attack material may well be resolved long before a real election campaign. The housing market he is seeking to develop is already showing signs of slowing as interest rates rise, inflation may be back under control and we can only hope it does not more pandemic mandates will remain to be repealed in 2025.

But these are post-leadership challenges. First, he needs a win on September 10.

And in the here and now, it must be recognized that Pierre Poilievre attracts impressive crowds in large halls in very unlikely places. He receives euphoric grassroots reactions to his outlandish policies, even though they are politically problematic. And his team no doubt sells hundreds of loyal Poilievre memberships at every pit stop on the tour.

If this precocious frolic lasts another month, Canada’s most unlikely political rock star will be impossible to beat.

This is the bottom line.