NEWS ANALYSIS: Conservative candidates set sail into the unknown - Still reeling from the failures of the election campaign, five Tory leadership hopefuls are treading carefully as they attempt to woo both the party faithful and the electorate at large...

The Conservative Party is entering uncharted territory. After

William Hague's hasty resignation speech, the party faithful is faced

with the unusual prospect of actually electing its leader.



Until Ted Heath took the post in 1965, Tory leaders simply 'emerged'

from soundings among senior party figures. For the last three decades,

Tory backbenchers have decided.



But now, with help from MPs in culling the field to two, local Tory

members of at least three months standing will fill in a leadership

postal ballot for the first time.



As PRWeek went to press, the first ballot of MPs was being reheld in

Westminster following an inconclusive poll in which Ancram and Davis

came joint last, and neither agreed to back down. The PR war for

whichever candidates make it to the final run-off has stepped up a

gear.



The reaction of the party to the candidates' images, speeches, even

appearances on Question Time, is now not just important - but vital -

for success.



Michael Portillo remains the frontrunner among MPs, with former

chancellor Kenneth Clarke topping polls among conservative

supporters.



Portillo aide Nigel Waterson MP is one of a small group that gathers at

the candidate's election HQ in Westminster each morning to discuss

tactics.



He says: 'At the election, a lot of our policies were right but we

failed to communicate. That's what we have to address. This campaign can

get our message out to the country.'



Portillo's campaign centres on portraying a humble man who can move on

from past mistakes . Campaign highlights include a lunch with pupils at

a Kennington school, pledging to spend more time, 'at the sharp end' of

public services.



The revelation that he is a former hospital porter is a wonderful

attempt for a Tory to woo public sector workers.



But the allegations of 'backbiting' made by former shadow home secretary

Anne Widdecombe, as Portillo launched his campaign, have hurt. And fresh

allegations that he failed to declare cash from speaking engagements

cannot be helping his cause.



Clarke was a late entrant to the leadership race, almost a week after

Portillo and the other three candidates, Michael Ancram, David Davis and

Iain Duncan-Smith.



The popular media image is of rotund Ken, the europhile smoker who

speaks his mind. He has gone out of his way to attack the PR effort by

his own party during the general election campaign.



One europhile Tory supporter, Zed communications head Patrick Kerr, says

that, paradoxically, Clarke is winning the PR battle by distancing

himself so well from obvious spin: 'If you look at the way the public

was turned off by spinning and media massaging at the election, it's

obvious Ken would be popular. He is a man who can't be airbrushed.'



But Kerr adds that Clarke, who acts as deputy chairman of British

American Tobacco, is the benefactor of a sympathetic media. He says: 'He

came into the contest late and while his opponents were getting their

messages across he was in Vietnam selling cigarettes. That could have

attracted bad publicity.



But people in the media just thought "good old Ken" instead of attacking

him.'



Old-style aristocrat Ancram, chairman of the party during the last

election, is an outside hope. His image is as the man to unite the

party, but his launch was marred by footage of him idly strumming a folk

guitar - dangerously similar in style to the snaps of Hague wearing a

baseball cap at the Notting Hill carnival in 1997.



Right-winger Davis revels in his role as the dark horse but is still

anonymous to the majority of supporters.



This anonymity also attaches to Duncan Smith, but he received a boost

last week when he called for the party to unite in favour of a

referendum on the Euro. This distinguished him from Portillo, who has

campaigned against such a poll.



Another important factor, according to David Beamer, lifelong Tory and

director of PoliticsDirect.com, is that all the candidates now view the

use of websites as crucial to the race. But Beamer would like to see

more interaction between members and candidates on the sites.



'There are no discussion forums to raise issues and debate policies when

the vote is put to party members. This could be a useful way to attract

and engage with them,' he says.



But what is the grass roots reaction to the five campaigns so far?



Councillor Roger Thomas, Conservative vice-chairman of East Sussex

council and a freelance PRO, gives an insight into the views of

conservative members on the campaign so far.



'What members here want is to choose from a shortlist of Clarke and

Portillo,' he says. 'There is disagreement with Clarke's views on

Europe, but he is a familiar face. Older members feel at ease with

him.



Thomas adds: 'I think Portillo's revelation of a "homosexual encounter"

will put off some members but there is a feeling he would win us the

election and appeal to the majority of people.'



But as for the rest? Thomas says Ancram has come across as 'too cosy',

particularly after his guitar-playing PR stunt.



Duncan Smith, whom Thomas accidentally refers to as Gordon Smith, is

thought likely to suffer from his relative anonymity and from the sense

that he comes from the extreme right of the party, and has been backed

publicly by Lord Tebbit. Davis is seen as capable, trustworthy and

committed, but too much of an unknown for the leadership role.



Given these doubts, no-one would bet against Portillo, except perhaps

Clarke, over a nice cheroot.



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