By Andrea Hopkins
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's answer to Donald Trump is a pediatric surgeon and former cabinet minister who, like the U.S. president-elect, is railing against immigration and political elites.
Kellie Leitch, 46, has vaulted to the front of the race to lead the opposition Conservative Party by pushing a hard-right "Canadian values" platform that taps into discontent over the sluggish economy and Canada's acceptance of 37,000 Syrian refugees.
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Leitch is ahead of about a dozen candidates in the most recent opinion polls on the Conservative leadership election, scheduled to be held on May 27, 2017. The candidate chosen by party members will be their flag bearer for the October 2019 general election, against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals.
"Elites pretend this isn't an issue, but Canadians want to talk about it (immigration)," Leitch said in an interview last week from her farmhouse in rural Ontario.
She has professed admiration for Trump's embrace of the ordinary voter, and acknowledged similarities in their agendas.
"I am talking about screening immigrants, I am talking about building pipelines, I am talking about making sure Canadians have jobs, so yeah, some of the ideas and language are the same," said Leitch, an energetic and plain-spoken former labor and women's affairs minister.
Just as Trump did not initially have the backing of mainstream Republicans, Leitch has alienated many in her party establishment who fear that she will struggle to win Canada's urban, mainly immigrant, voter base in the general election.
One of the reasons why the Conservatives had managed to hold power for almost a decade was their successful push into immigrant communities under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had convinced the party that rising immigration made newcomers a must-win constituency. Canada takes in about 300,000 immigrants every year.
"She may believe that swimming away from the broad center of the Conservative electoral coalition, the one that wins elections, may make sense. History and demographics argue otherwise," said Hugh Segal, who has known Leitch for more than 25 years. Segal is a former senator and chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Still, a November poll by Mainstreet/Postmedia showed Leitch led a 12-candidate Conservative race with 19 percent support, and separate data showed she led fundraising as well. The pool of candidates running has since swelled to 14, and more may join, including businessman and reality TV star Kevin O'Leary, who has also drawn comparisons to Trump.
"There is absolutely room for a populist surprise in Canada," said pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research. "The type of forces driving Brexit and Trump are very much at work in Canada, albeit somewhat more muted."
In a year marked by ultra-conservative movements in Europe and the United States, Leitch's vault from relative obscurity to Conservative front-runner is in part boosted by media fascination with the parallels between her "Canadian values" and Trump's "Make America great again."
Like Trump, Leitch has been accused of being racist and targeting Muslims with her proposal to make every immigrant go through a face-to-face interview before letting them in. She denies those charges, and says her screening plan is aimed at ensuring each immigrant is a good fit for Canada.
"Even if my colleagues are concerned about the backlash of the media or other elites, that's okay with me because I'm quite comfortable ... I don't view it as racist in any way," said Leitch, a practicing Catholic from the traditionally conservative, oil-rich province of Alberta.
Trudeau was elected in October 2015 and promised to accept more Syrian refugees more quickly than the Conservatives, who had been in power for nearly 10 years. But his timeline proved too ambitious, and sparked public criticism that the government was too rushed to adequately screen refugees for security concerns.
Amid dissatisfaction with the economy and other issues, Trudeau's approval rating has fallen 10 percentage points to 55 percent in the last three months, according to a December Angus Reid poll, though he remained more popular than any recent prime minister.
While much can change in the next three years before the general election, Graves, the pollster, said a Conservative victory is possible in part because Canada's economic malaise has sparked the same kind of working class resentment that helped propel Trump to victory.
Canada's economy has been hurt by a two-year slump in oil prices, weak business investment and disappointing non-energy exports. The economy contracted in October and the manufacturing sector logged its biggest decline in nearly three years.
"The reason Trump got his momentum is he was the only candidate who was prepared to talk about immigration," said Martin Collacott, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, a Conservative think-tank, and a former ambassador. "If Kellie Leitch plays it right, and refines her message, she could probably get quite a bit of support."
(Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Amran Abocar and Tiffany Wu)