Thinning out the herd

Also-ran candidates for Liberal leadership have a decision to make: Stay in until the convention, or bail out now?

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The Americans have Super Tuesday, when a whole bunch of states vote in the presidential primaries. In a deliberate echo, the Liberals' delegate selection process was dubbed Super Weekend.

And after the weekend shakeout of the delegates comes the shakedown of the candidates.

The selection of more than 4,000 delegates, all of them committed to candidates at the riding level on a proportional basis of their vote among party members, leaves the leadership field clearly divided into a front four who will be the final four, and a final four who are nowhere near the front four.

The front four - Michael Ignatieff at 30 per cent, Bob Rae at 20 per cent, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy with 17 per cent - all have sufficient support to be on the ballot at the convention.

The others - Ken Dryden at five per cent, Joe Volpe and Scott Brison at four per cent and Martha Hall Findlay at one per cent - now have a decision to make.

Do they stay in to make a prime-time speech at the convention? Or do they drop out gracefully, throwing their support to one of the leading contenders, in a way that matters?

In the Liberal Party, this is the Mitchell Sharp Award, named for the leadership candidate who dropped out of the race in 1968, and threw his support to Pierre Trudeau at an important moment before the April convention.

We are at precisely that moment now, two months before the Montreal conclave, which will become a delegated convention after the first ballot.

For example, what's Dryden going to do, and who would he go to. Well, he's a goalie, and goalies are different, they march to their own tune. In other words, while ultimately a team player, Dryden is his own guy. He will probably stay in, make his speech on the issues he cares about, notably education, and then release his delegates.

Joe Volpe? He might as well stay in, because none of the first-tier candidates wants his support, which is tainted. This is a guy whose campaign accepted money from his friends on behalf of their children, and signed up new members in cemeteries, a transgression for which the party has since fined him $20,000. Volpe has blamed the bad publicity on the fact he's Italian, a view that's been endorsed by another Italian, Alfonso Gagliano, which is one heck of an endorsement.

Scott Brison? He got 40 per cent of the delegates in Nova Scotia, and they would follow him anywhere. Here is the most likely candidate for the Mitchell Sharp Award. He's a smart guy, and he knows now's the time to move.

But where would he go, to Ignatieff or Rae? He's been sharply critical of Ignatieff's verbal gaffes - his indifference to civilian victims in Lebanon, his musing on civil war in Quebec.

But Ignatieff and Brison are among a distinct minority of Liberal MPs who voted with the Conservatives to extend the Afghan mission by two years to 2009. So they have that much in common, and it's a beginning. It's less clear what he has in common with Rae, other than that both have switched parties to join the Liberals, Rae from the NDP and Brison from the Conservatives, because neither felt comfortable there anymore.

All three candidates who have dropped out until now have gone to Rae, for whatever their support is worth. Ignatieff needs someone to go to him, right here, to help build his momentum. And Rae needs another momentum builder after falling a bit short of expectations on the first ballot.

The top-tier candidates have been furiously spinning the Super Weekend results. Ignatieff got to 30 per cent, and his share might rise to 35 per cent when the automatic delegates such as MPs and senators are added to the rank-and-file list selected last weekend. But that's not enough to make him anywhere near the inevitable winner on subsequent ballots. Still, there's enough separation back to Rae and the others that he's clearly the front-runner, with significant support in every province of the country.

Rae fell five points short of his expected performance, and a 10-point spread is much bigger than five. His shortfall occurred in Ontario and Quebec - he finished third in both provinces. Finishing third in Ontario means Liberals remember that he once ran an NDP government at Queen's Park, generally regarded as the worst of modern times.

Dion and Kennedy are bunched together at 17 per cent, but it's Dion who has the potential for greater growth on subsequent ballots. Each can be a kingmaker, neither can be king, unless Dion can somehow grow to second place on the first ballot. That can only happen if an ABB movement, anyone but Bob, coalesces around him. Not likely, but not impossible.

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