AJAX, Ont. — While consistently dismissing critics who accuse her of cashing in on her family name, Caroline Mulroney has recruited her famous father to shore up support as she fights to seize the reins of Ontario's Opposition.
Former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney denied Monday that he was brought in to add clout to his daughter's campaign as she falls behind in the polls with only days to go before the Progressive Conservatives choose a new leader.
The former politician said he has been stumping for his daughter for weeks at fundraisers and other events, and said her bid for the leadership has been gaining momentum.
"I'm here because I'm her father, that's all," he told reporters after a lunchtime event in Ajax, Ont., east of Toronto — one of three such events he is scheduled to speak at this week while his daughter campaigns in other parts of the province.
He pushed back against suggestions that Caroline Mulroney, a Toronto lawyer and businesswoman, isn't qualified for the job, saying he was also criticized as too green during his campaign to lead the federal party in 1983.
"That's goofy stuff. I had no political experience and look what happened: I won the two largest back to back majorities since Sir John A. MacDonald," he said.
Polls had him lagging in third place days before he won the leadership, he said. "I won that and I feel the same way about Caroline. She's growing and the others are drawing anaemic crowds with very little enthusiasm that I can see," he said.
Former Tory legislator Christine Elliott, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford and parental rights activist Tanya Granic Allen are also vying to replace former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, who resigned in late January amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Brown has repeatedly denied the allegations and briefly campaigned to reclaim his job before dropping out of the race.
While Mulroney appears to be bringing out the big guns in the last stretch of the campaign, having her father in the spotlight could send mixed messages, said Genevieve Tellier, a political science expert at the University of Ottawa.
Mulroney has so far positioned herself as a fresh face outside of the political establishment and having her father there instead reinforces her connection to the old guard, Tellier said.
It could also undermine her efforts to establish herself as a leader in her own right, Tellier said. The fact that the two are appearing separately rather than together suggests Mulroney is trying to strike a balance, she said.
Mulroney's camp said she is grateful for her father's support as she crisscrosses the province meeting party members.
"Most know him as a lifelong conservative whose commitment to public service continues," said spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman. "He's someone she turns to for advice and she's grateful for his support."
While the 43-year-old mother of four has faced the most scrutiny over her high-profile family connections, two of her rivals also have ties to well-known politicians.
Elliott's late husband Jim Flaherty was a former provincial Tory legislator and went on to become the federal minister of finance under former prime minister Stephen Harper. Ford's late brother, Rob Ford, was the mayor of Toronto until 2014.
Mulroney's family may have been more of a focus because she was relatively unknown before launching her bid for the leadership, while the other two candidates were already public figures, Tellier said.
Even Brian Mulroney had been in the public eye before he became leader of what was then called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, because he had made an unsuccessful bid for the job a few years earlier, she said.
"He was not somebody coming out of the blue," Tellier said.
The son of another famous Tory could also be running under the party's banner in the spring election. Mike Harris Jr., son of Ontario's former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris, told the radio station 570News he plans to seek the party nomination in Waterloo, Ont., a riding currently held by the New Democrats.
The Ontario Tories announce their new leader March 10.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press