It never ceases to amaze me how many conservatives there are who think that there is some magical dial out there, like a volume knob, that we can turn up and down, and there is some optimal level of "conservativeness" that is acceptable to the general public and we just haven't found it yet.
I've been involved in conservative organization for close to a decade now. I have lived all over this province. I have knocked on lots of doors and asked people how they feel about a wide range of conservative candidates and leaders, and people are saying the exact same things now as they were back then. If the candidate is openly and vocally conservative, that's scary and weird. If the candidate makes an effort to emphasize their own personal progressive views, or if the party makes an effort to curb those that are openly and vocally conservative, that's just a cover-up for the hidden agenda. Because there is no acceptable level of conservativism.
So go the John Tory route if you must, but don't expect people to like you or vote for you just because you do everything you can to show how progressive you are. When you do that, voters sit back and wait for you to make a mistake, and then when you inevitably do, that's all the reason they need. Because when it comes to being progressive, the real progressives have you beaten before you even start.
I remember how the federal Tories would talk about how the public would eventually get used to Harper and how, because he had been in office for a few years, he would eventually gain the trust of the voters so long as he didn't allow anything really crazy to happen. But here it is, with Harper having been in power for 8 years going on 9, and he's still regarded as this unnatural gargoyle perched atop Canadian politics. He and his government shouldn't be there. We're not a real country with him there. When Trudeau wins, then we'll have our country back. Even if Trudeau is infinitely worse than Harper? Yes, even then. Because Trudeau, for all his flaws, isn't a conservative.
If I needed an example of how little trust people place in Harper, I just need to point to the robocalls affair. When the story broke, Harper was guilty. That's it. It went all the way to the top, it was directed from the PMO, it was a targeted pattern of suppression, and it was perfectly consistent with Harper's M.O. Meanwhile, there is more evidence that the OLP ordered the cancellation of the gas plants, linking the OLP to ORNGE, knew about waste at eHealth, is connected to the Working Families coalition....you name it....than there is evidence that Harper or the PMO ordered the robocalls. Today, everyone knows what a robocall is and is vaguely suspicious about them if not outwardly hostile to them, and nobody, if you believe articles that are written in the Toronto Sun, can tell you about the gas plant scandal "because it doesn't have a catchy name."
Liberals don't have to be competent or have policy that makes sense or be ethical or even really try that hard to be elected. There are Liberal MP's and MPP's that barely campaign, vanish between elections, hold openly pro-life views, are indistinguishable from members of the CPC or NDP, can't negotiate their way around an ethnic celebration without a platoon of handlers, and might be barely clinging to life. All of these are preferable to Conservatives- any conservatives, no matter how progressive- in the eyes of Canadians.
So the only possible way that Conservatives will hold government is- as the case with Harper- if they appear to be hypercompetent and hyperorganized in the face of endless efforts from the fifth column to discredit them. But that's hard. And in a place like the PC Party of Ontario, you don't go very far by preaching absolute competence. It's about the crucial distinction between Red Tories and Blue Tories (even though nobody outside the party knows or cares what the difference is) and how those people on the other side are to blame for whatever calamity we've just gone through.