An NDP dilemma: proven performer vs. backroom boy

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The New Democratic Party leadership race is two campaigns in one.

The first campaign, which ends Thursday, is an advance online poll in which party members fill out a preferential ballot with their first, second, third and subsequent choices. Their votes will be counted in preferential order, depending on the number of ballots needed for a majority. Remember there are seven names on the ballot.

The second campaign, which begins with live voting at the convention in Toronto, will enable members in the hall, and at home, to make their second and third choices in real time, rather than having to indicate them in advance.

It could be deal time, almost like the days of delegated conventions, when losers picked winners right on the floor.

As of Monday, fewer than 30,000 out of 130,000 members had voted, or about 22 per cent. That means the other 78 per cent are either sitting it out or waiting it out.

The NDP's membership ranks have grown by about 40,000, including 12,000 new members from Quebec, bringing its Quebec total to 14,000.

That's good news for Tom Mulcair, running as Quebec's favourite son, trying to close the deal with the rest of Canada with the argument that the party needs him to hold on to its historic gains in Quebec - 59 seats, thanks to Jack Layton.

But Quebec members comprise barely 10 per cent of the membership. In British Columbia, where there are 40,000 members, there's a riding on the Lower Mainland, one top party official says, with 8,000 members. And those votes are not going to Mulcair. They're going largely to Brian Topp, with some breaking to B.C. MP Nate Cullen, who's emerging as the dark-horse candidate in the race.

Anyone who tells you how this thing is going to come out is talking through his (or her) hat. No one knows.

There will be more than 4,000 members showing up for Friday's speeches and tribute to Jack. The speeches will be about defining and differentiating the candidates.

Mulcair is the obvious front-runner, but the question is how far in front, and how much he grows on subsequent ballots. A front-runner needs either momentum or inevitability to go over the top. It's not clear how much of either Mulcair has going for him. If he doesn't score 35 per cent on the first ballot, he'll have neither.

The question would then become who would emerge as the Anyone But Mulcair candidate.

Ed Broadbent, the party's most successful leader before Layton, has a pretty good idea. Having already endorsed Topp, he went public last week with a stinging non-endorsement of Mulcair that may have offended some but probably helped define the choice.

He told the Globe and Mail that the choice of Mulcair would be "a central mistake" for the party. And he noted that many MPs "are supporting Brian, who doesn't have a seat, over Tom, the man they've worked with. I don't think it's accidental."

Ouch. Ed Broadside.

What Broadbent is saying is that Mulcair has a reputation in caucus as a loner, in addition to being an attack dog.

He does have more than 40 MPs supporting him, and not all from Quebec by any means. But his roots in the party are thin. He was a member of Jean Charest's provincial Liberal cabinet and reportedly was negotiating with the Harper government before settling in with Layton in 2007. But he also won a by- election in Outremont, a historic Liberal seat.

Topp, on the other hand, has spent his entire life in the NDP backrooms, serving successful premiers as well as playing senior roles in Layton's four national campaigns. His problem has been breaking out of the backroom into the front hall of retail politics.

One thing about Mulcair: he can do retail.

This party has a choice to make. There is a proven performer, Mulcair, who is also a polarizing figure. And there is a street-smart strategist, Topp, who can grow into the role of opposition leader and who might in time be a unifier, a rassembleur like Jack.

We'll know the answer with Saturday's shakeout.

 
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