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Tories full of hugs, solidarity

One hug at a time is how the leader of Alberta's opposition Wildrose party describes his efforts to unite the right in his province.

At a conservative convention in Ottawa this weekend, there are a lot of hugs going around.

For some, they are in sympathy. Former Tory MP Stella Ambler is among a handful of defeated MPs making the rounds at the Manning Centre conference in a bittersweet return to Ottawa.

"It's wonderful to see people. In one breath you're talking about issues of the day . . . and in the next you see someone you worked with closely for four years on something," she said.

"It's a roller coaster of emotions."

But for Ambler and others, the hugs are also a show of strength. A common theme among attendees at the conference is that the licking of wounds from their federal election defeat is over.

"The momentum is starting to now turn to how do we grow, how to we expand, who do we reach out to," said interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.

"It's an opportunity for everyone to step back and say how do we move forward."

For Ambrose, who represents an Alberta riding, getting the right together in a province where the NDP pulled off a stunning victory last year is top of mind. She'd invited both Wildrose leader Brian Jean, and his rival, interim PC leader Ric McIver to stay at her house over the weekend. Jean demurred, but she did host them both for a dinner.

"Albertans are not divided, but the political parties need to get together," she said.

Federal and provincial conservative leaders need to work better together in all provinces, she said.

She's developing formal working relationships with the Atlantic conservative leaders in particular, as the federal Tories lost every single seat in the province last fall, while their provincial counterparts still retain them.

Conservatives need to be where people are, ideologically but also literally — showing up even in ridings that haven't voted blue in decades or in new Canadian communities were people have never voted in Canada at all, said Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown.

"We can't be rigidly partisan when it's not a partisan issue and we need to make sure that we don't cede any turf," he said.

For all the optimism, the Manning conference is smaller than in past years. Some say that's a reflection of a waning influence on the party of the Manning centre itself, as the party looks to broaden its base beyond those western roots. Others say that's the reality of life in opposition and the long road ahead.

"It's important to get together, it's important to have these conversations with movement conservatives, but there are a lot of other stages along the way," said Tony Clement, among the Tory MPs considering a run for leadership.

Next weekend in Ottawa is the Ontario Progressive Conservative convention, this May in Vancouver is the federal one.

The federal Tories won't vote for their next leader until 2017.



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