OTTAWA - Michael Chong took pains Monday morning to distinguish himself from Stephen Harper. Not in so many words - Chong praised Harper's fiscal conservatism when asked about the former prime minister - but through a number of the policies he touched on.

Chong is the third candidate to declare his ambition to lead the federal Conservatives, joining former labour minister Kellie Leitch and former minister of state for small business Maxime Bernier in the race that won't be decided for another year. The higher-profile candidates are biding their time; they already have the name recognition and fundraising ability the first three will need to build.

The Conservatives under Michael Chong would aim to lower taxes and simplify the tax code, he said. They would acknowledge the need to preserve the environment, and that carbon pricing already exists in Canada, and use that revenue to lower income taxes. Chong is in favour of gay marriage, but for a rather socially conservative reason.

"I believe that families are the core building block of our society and if two people want to make a life-long commitment and formalize that, I think we should respect that and we should welcome that," he said Monday in Ottawa.

Chong set out the broad strokes of a fiscally conservative platform, including lower income taxes and a simplified tax code, a belief in protecting citizens from a state he described as overly intrusive, and a pledge to advance the party's position on climate change.

He spoke of his parents' immigration to Canada and growing up as the child of immigrant parents, as well as the Conservative Party's need to reconnect with new Canadians.

"There are other groups like new Canadians we need to bring back into our fold... We need to reach out to new Canadians and re-earn their trust," Chong said.Chong was first elected in 2004 in a southern Ontario riding and went on to serve in former prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet as intergovernmental affairs minister.

But he resigned from that position in 2006 because he didn't support a motion recognizing Quebecers as a nation, calling it ethnic nationalism.

He took a seat in the backbenches; and from there, spearheaded legislation to give individual MPs more power.

A bill to that effect became law last fall.

Who is Michael Chong?

Conservative MP Michael Chong represents the Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills.

First elected in 2004, Stephen Harper made him minister of intergovernmental affairs in February, 2006.

Chong quit cabinet over the Conservative government's motion to recognize Quebec as a nation. He is married with three sons.

Chong says he believes in:

• balanced budgets, lower taxes and the efficient delivery of government services.

• the power of free markets and free trade.

• conserving the environment as part of being a Conservative.

• individual liberty, and the need to protect citizens from an overly intrusive state.

• democratic reform to curb the power of the PMO and party leaders to control MPs.

While Chong distanced himself from some Harper-era policies, he said he agreed with the former government's ban on face coverings at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. The Conservatives moved to legislate the ban, despite the insignificant number of women wearing niqabs for their citizenship ceremonies, and despite existing rules that have them lift their veils in a private area so officials can confirm their identity.

"In a free and democratic society it is reasonable under the Charter to put a limit on that right," he said. Giving testimony in a criminal trial, or at a citizenship ceremony, Chong added, "are very limited cases where the state, under section one of the Charter, can exercise that prorogative. Beyond that, I think people should be able to wear what they want." 

The Conservatives also announced during the election campaign that they would introduce a snitch line for "barbaric cultural practices." Kellie Leitch, who is also running for the Conservative Party leadership, was one of the two MPs who announced the snitch line. The proposal died when the party lost the election.

"Obviously I wouldn't have introduced the barbaric cultural practices hotline," Chong said.

The Conservatives have to attract younger people and suburban voters in the growing areas around Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, he said, in part by improving their approach to social media and making it easier to join the party.

Chong was one of the few Conservative MPs in the Harper government who would speak his mind, albeit quietly, after he left his cabinet position. He said he plans to bring forward a set of policies on democratic reform to curb the power of party leaders and the Prime Minister's Office to control MPs.

The challenges facing each candidate

Besides their lower profiles, the first three candidates all face their own challenges, including their abilities in their second languages. Each might be better known for a political stumble than a success. Leitch is now trying to distance herself from that barbaric cultural practices tipline proposal. Bernier, meanwhile, is best known in English Canada for having dated a woman with biker gang ties, then leaving secret documents at her home in 2008.

Chong has to worry about finding support in Quebec after so disliking the Conservative motion to recognize the province as a nation that he quit Harper's cabinet.

The three contestants so far have a head start before the higher profile Conservatives announce their runs. That could include former defence ministers Peter MacKay or Jason Kenney, finance critic Lisa Raitt, or Ontario MP Tony Clement. Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer is also considering a run.

They're all products of the Harper era and will pick and choose the policies to which they tie themselves. Chong referred more frequently to Brian Mulroney than to Stephen Harper, but was ready to answer when asked what he learned from Harper.

"What I've learned is that a leader needs to know what they stand for. Needs to know the principles ... which they stand for, and I think what Mr. Harper had was strong principles that guided him," Chong said.

"What I bring to the table is a belief in principles and policies that will take this country forward. Are they exactly the same as Mr. Harper's? No. But they are conservative principles and they will be conservative policies."

With files from the Canadian Press