Kennedy and Dion are shaping up as kingmakers

And although unlikely, there is still a chance Dion could come out on top

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Even before the Liberal Party's Quebec wing forced the Quebec nation question onto the agenda of the Liberal leadership race, next month's convention was certain to be the most exciting since the Conservative conclave of 1983.

There is no clear front-runner, and elected delegates will be released from their obligations after the first ballot, at which point it becomes a "delegated" convention, brokered right on the floor of Montreal's Palais des congres, in full view of the entire country. Unfortunately for the Liberal convention planners, the Quebec question also threatens a hugely divisive floor fight. Trouble with a capital T. Right here in River City. Sometimes, great theatre makes lousy politics.

The question of Quebec's place in Canada is nowhere more central or more divisive than in the Liberal Party. This is a debate about its very soul. And Michael Ignatieff's idea of the country, of Quebec as a nation within Canada, is welcome in Quebec but sheer anathema in the rest of the country. His Quebec supporters strenuously backed sending the Quebec nation resolution to the full convention, and if it fails to carry, Ignatieff's campaign will be deemed to have failed along with it.

The Ignatieff campaign was already in trouble with the very people he needs to close the deal - the 1,000 or so automatic delegates. These are the pols, the hardened political operatives who ask only one question: Can we win with this guy? Well, not if he's stepping on political landmines and blowing himself up every other day.

Ignatieff has another problem. His campaign was built on the assumption of his inevitability. But with 30 per cent of the elected delegates, and maybe 33 per cent counting ex-officios, there's nothing inevitable about him. This makes it difficult to say the train is leaving the station, be on it or be under it.

Yet the Ignatieff campaign continues to pursue a scorched- earth strategy. At the Montreal meeting of the Quebec wing, his supporters roundly booed Stephane Dion. How does that help Ignatieff make friends and influence people, which is what this convention will be all about after the first ballot?

Each of the front four contenders has serious challenges going into the convention. With only 20 per cent of the delegates, Bob Rae is 10 points behind Ignatieff and only three points ahead of Dion and Gerard Kennedy, who are each at 17 per cent. Rae does not have enough separation, back to Dion and Kennedy, to be the only alternative to Ignatieff.

Rae also finished third in Ontario because Ontario Liberals remember when he was the NDP premier of their province from 1990-95, racking up record deficits, more than doubling the provincial debt in five years, with 1.2 million on welfare and 100,000 jobs leaving the Canadian industrial heartland.

But Rae also has the most potential for growth after the first ballot. The three candidates who've dropped out have all gone to him, and of the remaining six, it's not clear that any of them will be going to Ignatieff. And in terms of what the party establishment is looking for, Rae is the most experienced campaigner, and the least likely to get into trouble on the trail.

At the end of the day, it's Dion and Kennedy who hold the keys to this convention. Dion began as the candidate of the environment, but might yet emerge as the champion of Trudeauvian orthodoxy in the rest of Canada. He could also become the rallying point of an ABB movement, Anyone But Bob, centred in the Ontario wing of the party. These forces are mostly present in the Kennedy campaign.

Dion and Kennedy are the kingmakers. But while it is still a long shot, there is now a way for Dion to be king.

He can't get there from third place on the first ballot, but he can if he grows to second on the first round. And since he can't organically, he would need to grow by acquisition. And that would mean Kennedy going to him after the speeches on the Friday night of the convention, but before the vote on the Saturday morning.

This is the scenario the Dion campaign is shopping to the Kennedy camp. It makes a certain amount of sense. Kennedy is young enough at 44, needs time to improve his French, and would be the leading candidate of alternation at the next leadership. He is indeed the candidate of what John Turner, in 1968, called "some next time."

While it's not likely, it's not impossible.

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