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FILE PHOTO: Television personality and businessman Kevin O'Leary (L) and Canada's former Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism Maxime Bernier are seen in a combination of file photos in Pasadena, California, January 10, 2013 and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas, Chris Wattie/File Photo


By Andrea Hopkins

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The contest to choose the next leader of Canada's Conservative Party heats up on Wednesday with the final televised debate of the long race, where a reality TV businessman and a former foreign minister have emerged as top contenders to face Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019 national election.

The Conservative race to replace Stephen Harper, who quit politics after his 2015 loss to Trudeau, has several parallels to the 2016 Republican race in the United States, including having more than a dozen candidates and a showy front-runner who has offended party establishment.

With weeks to go before party members choose a new leader on May 27, the race has boiled down to venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary, and former government minister Maxime Bernier, according to polls.

O'Leary, who gained fame as a brusque dealmaker on the reality show "Shark Tank", has no political experience and tenuous ties to the party but has held the spotlight due to an outsized media profile and the support of Canadians who say the businessman is a breath of fresh air.

"O'Leary stands out because he's aggressive and in their minds, people can see him standing up and taking Trudeau on," said one Conservative insider who declined to be identified. "But the guy doesn't know anything about politics."

Bernier, by contrast, is a second-generation politician and former foreign minister, a libertarian 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.

Populist immigrant-skeptic Kellie Leitch and current members of Parliament Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole are also top contenders.

The vote will be decided by a preferential ballot that redistributes second-place votes until there is a winner.

Bernier said that gives him the winning edge because, in his view, the polarizing O'Leary is the second choice of so few.

"People like Kevin O'Leary or they don't like him," Bernier said in an interview. "I have a lot of support for the second, third and fourth choice."

Both men said they have raised more than C$1 million ($736,594) in the first three months of 2017, figures that will not be officially confirmed for a few more days.

With 14 candidates, including several safe and experienced mainstream members of parliament, 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 required for one candidate to win a majority of votes.

O'Leary, who has been attacked by opponents as a non-resident who prefers living in Boston, says he is the best man to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump and touts his experience as a negotiator.

"People are tired of politicians. Trudeau has never run a business, he's never had a negotiation like this," O'Leary said in an interview. "I'm well known to Americans in America, and I'm informed about the way they view Canada."

($1 = 1.3576 Canadian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins; editing by Diane Craft)

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