OTTAWA - Tight timelines for membership sign-ups and a high entry fee could be keeping women out of the Conservative leadership race, says Marilyn Gladu, an Ontario MP who is the only woman seeking the top job so far.

Gladu said Thursday she knows that organizers' intent was to keep unserious candidates from tossing their hats into the ring, but there are broader implications.

"One of the things that prevents women from getting into politics is their ability to fundraise and their ability to network, so by raising the bar on both of those, that may have prevented other women from getting in," she said.

The rules do require both money and wide support, and fast: applicants must pay a total of $300,000 — with $100,000 of it eventually refundable — and get the signatures of 3,000 people, one-third of whom must live in 30 different ridings across seven provinces and territories.

The deadline to register and show major progress toward those requirements is Feb. 27.

Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Conservative party between the party's election loss in 2015 and the selection of Andrew Scheer as leader in 2017, was seen as someone who would have no trouble meeting the standard, and indeed was among the presumed frontrunners. But the former MP from Edmonton announced Wednesday she won't take a crack at the job, deciding to stay in the private sector.

Gladu said she was sorry to see Ambrose not in the race, though Gladu acknowledged Ambrose's decision to stay out might give her own campaign a boost.

Another, Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner, has yet to decide.

Gladu, who spent decades working as an engineer before getting into politics in the 2015 federal election, said she's used to being the only woman in the room.

"I'm able to make my voice heard, and to bring a balanced perspective," she said.

Though she might end up the only woman in the running, she's not the only MP.

Rookie MP Derek Sloan, who represents a rural riding in eastern Ontario, announced his intention to join the race on Wednesday. Former cabinet minister Erin O'Toole, from an eastern suburb of Toronto, is also planning a run.

Former cabinet minister and Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre had been expected to run, but dropped out suddenly on Thursday.

His decision came ahead of a gathering beginning Friday of Conservative MPs and senators to plot strategy for the return of the House of Commons on Monday.

Though Scheer is set to step down when the new leader is elected June 27, he still must shepherd the caucus along until then and keep its members focused on their primary job as Canada's Official Opposition, said Garry Keller. Keller was Ambrose's chief of staff, among other top jobs in the Conservative party, and now works as a consultant.

"If I'm the leader, I'm going to probably really empower my caucus to really be the face of the party over the next six months," he said.

"It's difficult as a leader in a difficult spot to have a lot of moral authority on a lot of issues simply because you're not going to be there in six months."

The Conservatives' efforts to hammer at the Liberal minority government could also be knocked off message as issues debated among leadership candidates boomerang into the House of Commons.

One candidate sparked an immediate fire storm this week when sharing his opinions on social conservative issues: Richard Decarie told CTV that he believes being LGBTQ is a choice, that he would remove any funding for abortion services and work to restore the traditional definition of marriage.

Several of his competitors moved swiftly to disavow his remarks. Though his public positions are much more liberal than Decarie's, Scheer's personal social conservatism was a constant target for Liberals and New Democrats in the fall campaign.

Ensuring caucus discipline will be essential to keeping the Conservatives competitive, Keller said.

"They have to operate for the next six months with some discipline and with some process and can't let that slip," he said.

"What's really important is to make sure, come June 27, that the party is in at least fighting shape to come back after the summer, and under its new leader make the case for why it is the government in waiting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23. 2020.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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