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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The front-runner in the race to become the next leader of Canada's Conservatives dropped out on Wednesday mere hours before the final televised debate, stunning party insiders and throwing the contest open to two remaining favourites.
Reality TV star and venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary said he was withdrawing from the 14-way contest to replace former Prime Minister Stephen Harper because he had not gained enough support in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where elections are often decided.
"I worked really hard and I couldn't move the needle" in Quebec, O'Leary told reporters, standing next to Maxime Bernier, a former foreign minister whose candidacy O'Leary said he would support.
The Conservative Party of Canada will decide its new leader by May 27 to face Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the 2019 national election.
"We are going to bring our forces together now so that we can win this race and then beat Justin Trudeau in 2019," said Bernier, a Quebec libertarian who was neck-and-neck with O'Leary for much of the race.
O'Leary, who gained fame as a brusque dealmaker on the reality show "Shark Tank," had no political experience and tenuous ties to the party but stole the spotlight because of an outsized media profile and the support of Canadians who saw the businessman as a breath of fresh air.
Bernier, by contrast, is a second-generation politician and free-market champion whose previous brush with fame came when he was dumped from Harper's cabinet after leaving confidential documents at the house of a girlfriend with links to organised crime.
The endorsement by O'Leary will boost Bernier's chances, with populist immigrant-sceptic Kellie Leitch and current members of Parliament Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole representing Bernier's biggest threat.
All four held their ground late on Wednesday at the final debate of the year-long contest, with Bernier arguing he was the best positioned to negotiate trade with U.S. President Donald Trump because they both want to end the supply management system of Canada's dairy sector.
"I'm the only one who can make a deal with him," Bernier said during the debate in Toronto. "But if you want a deal with us, you must open the border to softwood lumber and other products. That is the only way to have free trade in North America."
Trump is considering issuing an executive order to pull the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, a senior official in his administration said on Wednesday. The move could unravel one of the world's biggest trading blocs.
Canada's Conservative vote will be decided by a preferential ballot that redistributes second-place votes until there is a winner.
With 13 candidates, analysts have been wary of predicting a winner because even internal opinion polls have a hard time figuring out how preferences will shake out on the third, fourth, or fifth ballot that may be required for one candidate to win a majority of votes.
Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp in Toronto; Editing by Grant McCool and Tom Brown