The man who once successfully harnessed populist sentiment in Canada into political success is warning that much is at stake if today's political leadership fails to do that.

Preston Manning, founder of the Reform party, says the greatest challenge facing political leaders is that people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with government, mainstream media and politics.

"The answer is to manifestations of Trumpomania is not Trumpophobia, but political leadership that addresses the root causes of voter alienation and redirects negative political energy into positive ends," Manning said Friday at the annual conservative conference that bears his name.

At $500 for the conference fee, less for students, the gathering is less rank-and-file grassroots of the conservative movement in Canada and more the party's intelligentsia and operators gathered to debate the way forward.

But Manning said the point is to give the disparate elements of the movement the opportunity to meet, network and develop tools and strategies necessary to take the lead in federal and provincial politics in the future years.

The more carefully watched portion of the conference is likely to be the debate among the candidates for leadership of the federal Conservative party.

Friday is the deadline to register for the leadership contest and, barring last-minute entrants, there are 14 contenders.

Several have information tables in the hallways at the conference, where 900 people have reportedly registered for the two-day event, and others are holding parties off-site as they seek to woo card-carrying Tories and sell memberships to others.

The party will select its new leader in May. The pool of candidates is a testament to the inclusive tent the party has built, interim leader Rona Ambrose said in her remarks to the conference.

"While the issues that the candidates emphasize may vary and while some of their policy prescriptions may differ, the principles that underlie their leadership platforms are the same — the clear recognition that a government's role is to serve the people who pay the bills, not the well-heeled interests that talk the loudest."