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OTTAWA, May 27 (Reuters) - Canada's official opposition Conservative Party is set to elect a new leader on Saturday, seeking to regroup and rebrand as it gears up for the 2019 election race against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's still-popular Liberals.
The race has had moments of Trump-like populism with a reality TV star and a candidate critical of immigration getting early attention. But three mainstream politicians have emerged as front-runners, suggesting the wave of populism that swept Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in November will not extend to Canada.
The race between 13 candidates is too close to call but the winner faces an uphill battle to re-unite the right-of-center party that held power for nearly a decade under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper before the center-left Liberals won a shock majority in 2015.
"The challenge will be to attack Justin Trudeau's weaknesses, but also to bring Conservatives who have left the party back into the fold," said Queen's University political science professor Jonathan Rose.
Libertarian former Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, former House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer and former Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole are leading in polls, fundraising and endorsements. But analysts have been wary about predicting how preferences will shake out on multiple ballot counts required for one candidate to win a majority of votes.
Bernier was bolstered in late April when front-runner Kevin O'Leary, a reality TV star and businessman, withdrew from the race and threw his support behind him. Bernier might be best known to the wider public for resigning from Harper's cabinet after leaving confidential documents at the house of a girlfriend with links to organized crime.
Like Trudeau, Bernier is from Quebec, the predominantly French-speaking province which holds 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and is vital to a party's prospects.
None of the candidates have the high profile of Trudeau, whose approval ratings have faltered after nearly two years in office but remain higher than any opponent on the left or right, despite rising dissatisfaction with the economy and a series of spending and entitlement controversies.
"For Conservatives, it is really all about the economy," said Darrell Bricker, pollster with Ipsos Public Affairs. "If the Conservative Party doesn't have a strong lead over the Liberals on the question of which party has the best economic plan, it will struggle."
According to a Nanos poll, Trudeau is the preferred choice as prime minister among 46.3 percent of Canadians, far ahead of other Canadian party leaders.
To win, Bricker said the new leader must rebuild strength in rural and Western Canada as well as the vote-rich suburbs in Ontario. And he argues they don't need a leader with the charisma of Trudeau.
"The left needs to love. They need to believe that their vote is a statement about hope for the future. Trudeau, therefore, is perfect for them," said Bricker. "Tories prefer their leaders to get things done, not to inspire them ... and electing a less inspirational leader is not a problem for them." (Additional reporting by David Ljunngren; Editing by Amran Abocar and Mary Milliken)