Is this Doug Ford’s moment?

Ontario PC Party leadership hopefuls will meet this afternoon on the set of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin for the first of two scheduled (so far) debates. It will be broadcast live online right here – and on TVO’s main TV channel tonight at 8 and 11 pm.

As weird as this is to say… Doug Ford is, so far… the best choice to lead the Ontario PC Party.

That is, on the assumption Patrick Brown remains unavailable.

Many (maybe most) Progressive Conservatives would, I think, love to vote for Caroline Mulroney. She’s young. She’s bright. She’s accomplished. She reminds PCs of the halcyon decade of power they enjoyed in Ottawa under the wit and charm of her father. But, as accomplished as she is in life (and she is impressively qualified) … she’s a political rookie. And, she looks and sounds like one. Those caucus members and political veterans who have flocked to her campaign are so painfully obvious in their hope she will be thankful and include them in her inner circle if she wins the leadership. Mandarins smell opportunity.

Many Old Guard PCs, who starved through the post-Mike Harris years while clinging to the shreds of his Common Sense Revolution in bold denial of the changing world around them, would love to vote (again) for Christine Elliott. She’s a bonafide heroine of the Old PC Party. There weren’t enough people who thought it was Elliott’s turn in 2009. There were less who thought so in 2015. There are, no doubt, even fewer today. If she is hoping (again) for a coronation, she will be (again) disappointed.

Tanya Granic-Allen. Enough said.

So, barring a surprise return of Patrick Brown – which is extremely unlikely but not out of the question (he has about 24 hours left to do so) – that leaves us with Doug Ford.

From afar, he looks like a smarter, fitter, more reasonable, more successful, version of Rob Ford. He shares some of his brother’s folksy charm, plain-spoken manner, and focus on the little things that make a difference to average voters across Ontario. He lacks the alcoholism and drug addictions that ruined his brother.

Now, that’s not the Doug Ford I remember from my time in the Mayor’s Office. But, that was five years ago. A lot has changed. Doug Ford has changed. How much? How so? I’m not sure.

He’s surrounded himself, this time, with a capable and professional campaign team. He’s working harder than his competitors and travelling across the province. He’s pledged to oppose a carbon tax – a departure from the People’s Guarantee of Patrick Brown, but he’s done so in a cagey and entirely deniable way that could let him have his cake and eat it too.

He’s placated social conservatives by promising to revisit the sex-ed curriculum – which they demand – but he’s done so within an uncharacteristically strategic statement that promises he won’t stop there; he’ll review the entire education curriculum, with parents and teachers. No one can argue this isn’t a good idea. Everyone should agree it’ll be time to review the sex ed curriculum by then anyway.

So, far, Doug Ford has surprised and impressed me. Let’s see how he performs during the debate. Let’s see if he can sustain the momentum until March 10 … and beyond to June 7. And, let’s see if any of the other candidates can surprise me.