A first look at the full cast of the NDP leadership race

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 7, 2011

There were nine lecterns on the floor of Sunday's NDP leaders' debate, reminiscent of the crowded race for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States.

"I'm sure it's the only way we'll look like the Republicans," quipped Ed Broadbent, once the party's leader and now its elder statesman.

Until there's a winnowing of the field in the new year, the NDP is stuck with the unwieldy reality of nine candidates in the race to succeed the late Jack Layton.

The debate at Ottawa's spiffy new Congress Centre saw exchanges limited by the number of people jostling for position, and the further limitations of a format of an hour in English followed by an hour in French.

The nine hopefuls were limited to one-minute opening and closing statements, hardly enough time to clear their throats. Which ate up 18 minutes in each language, nearly a third of the time.

The debate didn't feature exchanges so much as probes, or coded messages from one camp to another. For example, Tom Mulcair made four pointed references to the "tarsands," rather than the "oilsands." He was talking to Nathan Cullen of northern British Columbia. Cullen is a fierce opponent of the oilsands and projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast.

The NDP tried to jazz up the format with mini-debates featuring three candidates in a sprint on selected questions from party members via Skype, but the clip the media were hoping for, a clash between presumed front-runners Brian Topp and Tom Mulcair, never materialized.

Instead there was only a brief touch of the gloves when Topp, the former party president and co-author of its election platform, took on Paul Dewar for not costing the promises in his campaign program.

This wasn't so much an attack on Dewar as a positioning statement by Topp, staking out the high ground of fiscal prudence in a party known for promises that would put the country on a credit watch.

Topp knows of what he speaks, having worked for NDP premiers Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow i n Saskatchewan, where socialist governments were famous for balancing the books by cutting program spending.

Topp needs to do a better job of breaking out of partyapparatchik mode and telling his story as the only candidate in the race with a national résumé, which is why he's the choice of the party establishment. In the NDP, there's definitely a strong establishment, or hierarchy, that has offered a string of endorsements for Topp, including Broadbent and Romanow. In their minds, he has the best understanding of the party and, by extension, the country.

Raised on the South Shore of Montreal by an anglophone father and a francophone mother, he's fully bilingual. Schooled in NDP western politics, he's also a veteran trade unionist as executive director of ACTRA, the Toronto-based Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.

A close adviser to Layton, he's worked in senior roles in the last four elections, from writing platforms to running debate prep. Layton's knockout of Michael Ignatieff, on his poor attendance record in the House, was not a random moment; it was rehearsed.

Asked after Sunday's debate about the difference between running debate prep and being the candidate, Topp said it was mainly a question of nerves.

Topp and Mulcair had an obvious advantage in the French half of the debate, but with the exception of Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm, all the other candidates were surprisingly adequate in French.

At one point, it was Mulcair who lapsed into English in an exchange with Cullen, before catching himself and apologizing.

"It's all right, I've taken a few lessons," Cullen replied in French. "You can speak to me in French."

Cullen clearly understands that a sense of humour goes a long way in a debate, and in that sense he stood out from the field. Not that he won the debate - nobody did - but he got noticed.

In such a crowded field, the media will arbitrarily determine the front of the pack and the back of the pack. In the first tier, Topp and Mulcair are the obvious frontrunners, but Peggy Nash is also there, and Cullen's strong showing rounds out the top four. Dewar should be a first-tier candidate, but was a bit wobbly on Sunday. In the second tier, Romeo Saganash of northern Quebec is the first Inuit candidate for the leadership of a Canadian party, so that's symbolically important, but he has no chance of winning this race. Neither do Niki Ashton, Martin Singh or Chisholm.

But here's the thing: eight years ago, when Layton won the leadership, nobody outside the NDP cared about the race. Now, thanks to him, the NDP is the official opposition, which makes this campaign important.

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