TORONTO - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is backing Tim Hudak in the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race - a move that could make things awkward at the federal cabinet table.

Hudak is running against Christine Elliott - the wife of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty - who has secured a few federal endorsements of her own.

But Kenney downplayed suggestions that divided loyalties could create rifts among cabinet ministers.

"Actually, this is a leadership campaign so far with absolutely no hard feelings - everyone you talk to seems positive about all the different candidates," he told The Canadian Press in Ottawa.

"I don't think it has the makings of being a classic, divisive campaign. At least not yet, and I hope it stays that way."

Having the backing of an influential federal minister is a major coup for Hudak, 41, the perceived front-runner in the race to succeed John Tory.

Kenney, who was born in Ontario and represents a Calgary riding, can't vote in the race. But observers say he could exert influence through his contacts in Toronto-area ethnic communities and his popularity with the federal party's more right-wing base.

He was even asked to speak at the Ontario party convention in February, where he joked about having been made an "honorary" Ontarian.

Kenney said Monday he's willing to "pitch in" if Hudak asks for help, but his ministerial duties will probably limit his involvement in the race.

"He's the bright, young, energetic, common-sense conservative that will appeal to Ontarians," he said.

Hudak has already been labelled the heir apparent to former Tory premier Mike Harris and his successful Common Sense Revolution platform, which propelled the party to power in 1995.

During his convention speech, Kenney heaped praise on Harris and his government's controversial agenda, which cut taxes and slashed spending in Ontario, including a 22 per cent reduction in welfare rates.

The approach prompted angry labour unrest and widespread protests that culminated in a violent clash between police and anti-poverty activists on the front lawn of the provincial legislature in 2000.

Hudak has strong ties to that era: he's married to Harris's former chief of staff and enjoys the backing of many of the architects of the right-wing agenda, including Harris himself - a hero to the party's most devout conservatives.

Elliott, a lawyer who was first elected to the Ontario legislature in 2006, has cast herself as the more centrist contender in the race by emphasizing the need for social responsibility as well as fiscal conservatism.

She has the backing of her husband and several other prominent MPs, including International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda - who represents the Ontario riding of Durham - and Peterborough-area MP Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister James Moore.

Another provincial leadership hopeful, Frank Klees, has also landed a federal connection.

The veteran Conservative - who once considered a bid for the Canadian Alliance party - has hired Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former spokeswoman Sandra Buckler to advise him on communications strategy.

Buckler, whose battles with the parliamentary press gallery led to an uneasy standoff with the reporters who cover the prime minister, left her job as Harper's director of communications last June after undergoing surgery for thyroid cancer.

Randy Hillier, the fourth hopeful in the provincial race, said he also has federal support but declined to name names.

The self-described libertarian is perhaps best known as the former president of the Lanark Landowners Association, which sent a picture of a dead deer to provincial cabinet minister Leona Dombrowsky with her name written on the photo.