TORONTO - No matter who ends up claiming the Ontario Progressive Conservative crown, the battle to replace John Tory will end up pushing the party back to the ideological right, experts say.
All four candidates who have emerged so far - Tim Hudak, Christine Elliott, Frank Klees and Randy Hillier - are more or less cut from the same conservative cloth, said Bryan Evans, a politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.
"There's no old-fashioned Red Tory running, there's nobody who hearkens back to the Bill Davis, Big Blue Machine era like John Tory did, like Ernie Eves did," he said.
"What we're going to be looking at will be a leadership contest defined by the right wing of the party and whomever emerges - of the current field of candidates anyway - will clearly push the party to much more solidly conservative, right-wing positions."
The slate of right-wing candidates may be a sign that the influence of the Red Tories - the more centrist Conservatives who dominated the party in the 1970s and '80s - has waned following Tory's unsuccessful leadership.
The party shifted more to the centre after former premier Mike Harris, a political hero to the party's neo-conservatives, stepped down in 2002.
But it seems to be swinging back to the right, partly because Tory failed to sell a more moderate, centrist vision of the party, Evans said.
The Conservatives thought they were getting a winner in Tory, someone who would appeal to urban voters and take back some of the ground in the political centre that the Liberals have jealously guarded for years, he said.
When the party lost the 2007 election - largely because of Tory's controversial and ill-fated promise to extend public funding to religious schools - the experiment was officially over, even though Tory hung in for more than a year, Evans added.
The party is now back to where it was in the lead-up to Harris's Common Sense Revolution, a controversial agenda that saw his government cut taxes and slash spending in Ontario, including a 22 per cent reduction in welfare rates.
"Will it be a complete photocopy? No, it won't be that because they know 'been there, done that,"' Evans said.
"But they're going to take their lessons from that period and try to reapply them. They'll be re-engineered, reshaped, remarketed."
Many of the architects of the Common Sense Revolution, including Harris himself, have already anointed 41-year-old finance critic Tim Hudak as the party's next leader, observers say.
The Niagara-area member, who is married to Harris's former chief of staff Deb Hutton, also has about half of the 24-member caucus in his corner.
Norm Miller - son of former premier Frank Miller - Julia Munro, Garfield Dunlop and Lisa MacLeod have all endorsed Hudak.
Elliott, who is married to federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, is largely considered to be Hudak's biggest threat.
She will be launching her own bid on Friday from her riding of Whitby-Oshawa and is expected to have the support of a few caucus members.
The lawyer and mother of triplet boys, who was elected in 2006 and serves as the party's justice critic, has distanced herself from her husband's more right-wing views.
She supports gay rights and opposes tax harmonization, even though Flaherty has long pushed for Ontario to merge its sales tax with the federal GST.
Longtime party activist and former cabinet minister Janet Ecker, who is orchestrating Elliott's campaign, said Elliott is a fiscal conservative who believes in helping others.
"She has a strong record as an advocate for the vulnerable, but she does not see that as incompatible with fiscal conservativism, and they're both very much a part of the heritage she believes in," Ecker said.
"People like to start pegging candidates as left or right, but it's not about left or right, certainly in her view."
Like Elliott, Klees has also spoken favourably about marrying fiscal conservatism and social responsibility.
But the 58-year-old businessman, former cabinet minister and 14-year veteran of the legislature also favours two-tier health care and once considered a bid for leadership of the Canadian Alliance party.
Klees, who has an endorsement from Thornhill member Peter Shurman, is taking a second run at the top job after losing in the 2004 race that saw Tory crowned as leader.
Hillier, a self-described libertarian who wants to scrap the Ontario Human Rights Commission, will likely make a splash in the race, but observers say he has virtually no support among caucus members.
The 51-year-old rural affairs critic, who was first elected in 2007 in the eastern Ontario riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, is no stranger to controversy.
He's perhaps best known as the former president of the Lanark Landowners Association, which sent a picture of a dead deer to Liberal cabinet minister Leona Dombrowsky with her name written on the photo.
Hillier has cast himself as the leader who will steer the party and the province back to true conservatism, including smaller government, fewer regulations and a more participatory democracy.
Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley was rumoured to be testing the waters, but sources say she has ruled out a jump to provincial politics.
Tory resigned last month after he lost a March 5 byelection in the central Ontario riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock.
His successor will be announced June 27 at the party's leadership convention in Markham.