ON the hot asphalt parking lot outside the Ottawa Civic Center, hundreds of Conservative delegates festooned with buttons and pins strut their choice for party leader.
Charles Murray does not. A 28-year-old lawyer and delegate from Long Reach, New Brunswick, Mr. Murray is waiting in line for a burger and fries along with the overt partisans.
The only message on his open-collared shirt is a badge with a blue stripe identifying him as a delegate. Several delegates squint at Murray's cap and shirt. Finding no sign of allegiance, they conclude he is that rare species, an uncommitted delegate.
"I'm typical of a small group of delegates whose cynicism is very high," Murray says between bites of hamburger. "Everybody promises. But I want to look into a candidate's eyes and know that he or she realizes that if I give him my vote, their responsibility goes beyond this convention."
Twenty-four hours away - on June 13 - the most important Progressive Conservative Party vote in a decade is to be held, a vote to choose a replacement for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, someone to take the reins of government and lead the underdog party into a tough fall campaign.
Out of the sun under several large tents, clusters of committed delegates - sporting the pink "Kim!" badges of Canadian Defense Minister Kim Campbell or the purple "Charest" pins of Environment Minister Jean Charest - sit eating and speculating.
Will support for Ms. Campbell, the front-runner, implode if there is a second ballot? Are poll results for real that say Mr. Charest is gaining? Which way will the three trailing candidates throw their support?
Only about 15 percent of the 3,472 party delegates arrived in Ottawa uncommitted. Most by now have already been swayed. With the race tight, Charest's and Campbell's teams are on the prowl.
"At first, there were a lot of people calling me," Murray tells a reporter. "But not so much anymore because they know they can't arm-twist me." Instead, he says, the more subtle "casual banter" approach is favored.
A tall man with a familiar face approaches Murray, winding his way through the tables. Barron Clarke is the Conservative Party chairman from New Brunswick.
"Well, what do you think?" Murray says in greeting, hand outstretched. He's referring to the race.
Mr. Clarke, a Campbell delegate, smiles and and grasps Murray's hand: "You know what I think."
"First or second ballot" win for Campbell? Murray asks.
"Well, that depends on you," Clarke says, still smiling. "See you later."
As pressure tactics go, this encounter is pretty mild, Murray says. But as the day wears on, a dozen or more similar ones occur.
Perrin Beatty, Minister of Communications in the Mulroney government, tells Murray that "persuasion," not arm-twisting, is the operative word. The two stand apart from a stream of delegates.
"He's the one person I would have worked my heart out for if he had run for the leadership," Murray says later. "The Campbell team knew that."
But even Beatty's entreaties do not convince Murray. Things about both Charest and Campbell leave him unimpressed, he says. Charest came out strongly in favor of protecting minority English-language rights in Quebec - a plus - while Campbell waffled.
On the other hand, Charest shows himself a smooth politician with a polished speaking style, yet twice refuses to say if he would serve in a Campbell cabinet.
"That's a mistake," Murray says, recalling the Charest remark. "These delegates value party loyalty above all."
After the candidates' speeches that evening, delegates are streaming out of the Civic Center headed for parties being thrown around the city by the five candidates. Murray's mind still isn't made up. As he walks toward an exit, Murray says he likes Jim Edwards, the Albertan known as "Mr. Integrity." His straightforward approach to the budget deficit and other contentious issues is appealing. Murray is struck by the commitment of Edwards's delegates, though their man seems sure to lose. Finally, Murray ad mits he may vote for Edwards on the first ballot.
But the cost of doing so will be high, he says. So he has to meet and talk with Edwards to see what his gut says.
"If I go with him on the first ballot, a lot of people are going to be pretty disappointed," Murray says. "When future decisions come up, some are going to say, `You know, Charles wasn't on board.' "
Soon an Edwards aide spots Murray, leading him toward the knot of delegates and reporters surrounding a broad-shouldered, bespectacled man with a voice hoarse from giving speeches. Edwards is introduced to Murray and the two talk for about 30 seconds, a long time as both are pulled by the crowd.
On the convention floor the next afternoon, only minutes before voting begins, Murray ponders the price of independence.
"I'm not going to be telling anyone who I voted for," he says. "But you can be sure that whoever wins, there will be rejoicing in that camp - and they will know, as I know, that I'm not one of them."
Four hours later, on the second ballot, Kim Campbell wins 52.7 percent of the delegate vote to become the party's new leader and the next prime minister of Canada. Murray joins the applause with gusto.
The time to close ranks has arrived.