OTTAWA - The second half of the NDP leadership race is starting much like the first, with candidates striving to demonstrate momentum through a raft of endorsements from New Democrat and labour heavyweights.
Brian Topp snagged arguably the most influential name Friday: former Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert.
As one of the few New Democrats to actually run a government, Calvert's endorsement was coveted. Indeed, one of Topp's chief rivals, Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, has repeatedly cited Calvert and former Manitoba premier Gary Doer as role models who've proved NDP governments can balance the books without compromising their social democratic values.
But Mulcair unveiled an endorsement of his own Friday: Reg Basken, former president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Not to be outdone in the quest for the influential labour vote, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar announced an endorsement from James Clancy, national president of the 340,000-member National Union of Public and General Employees, one of Canada’s largest unions.
Earlier in the week, Toronto MP Peggy Nash touted the backing of award-winning actress Sarah Polley and Quebec MP Dany Morin.
With no other way to tell how each of the eight candidates is faring in the seven-month race, endorsements are the only tangible — although not necessarily reliable — measure of momentum.
Anyone signed up as an NDP member Feb. 18 will be eligible to participate in the March 24 vote to choose a successor to Jack Layton, who died in August just months after leading the NDP to a historic finish in the May 2 election. At last count, the party boasted some 95,000 members but there's no accurate way to gauge which of the eight leadership candidates those members are supporting.
The ability to raise money is often another gauge of a campaign's health. But the party does not plan to publicly release interim financial statements that are to be filed with its chief financial officer next week.
In the absence of ways to measure real progress, Topp was accorded the title of presumptive front runner last fall, after amassing the most impressive roster of endorsements from party luminaries. His backers include Calvert's predecessor in Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow, and former national leader Ed Broadbent.
However, his campaign was perceived to have faltered last month, after he turned in a mediocre debate performance in Vancouver. By contrast, Mulcair seemed to be the one with momentum, performing well in debates and benefiting from polls suggesting the NDP's support in Quebec has begun to slip away.
The Montreal MP has positioned himself as the contender best able to hold onto the New Democrats' newfound Quebec base. The party won a record 103 seats in May, vaulting it into official Opposition status thanks primarily to a surge of support in Quebec.
As a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, Mulcair is well known in the province and is the only candidate who currently represents a Quebec riding. He's captured the support of just over half the NDP's 59 Quebec MPs.
Topp used Calvert's endorsement Friday to try to regain the momentum and present himself as a more well-rounded contender, who can win in both Quebec and the rest of the country.
Calvert noted that the fluently bilingual Topp was born, raised and cut his political teeth in Quebec. Although he currently resides in Toronto, Topp has said he intends to run for a seat in Quebec.
But Calvert stressed that Topp also has deep roots in the West, particularly in Saskatchewan where he served as deputy chief of staff to Romanow. And he said it is Topp's pan-Canadian appeal that will take the party from opposition to government in the next election.
"Brian has the national experience necessary to lead our party and form a national government," Calvert said in the text of remarks made in Saskatoon.
"Brian knows how to win in Quebec and that is an asset absolutely necessary in our next leader. But winning in Quebec is not enough to get the job done. We must also win here in Saskatchewan and across the country.
"Brian can do that too."
A longtime senior backroom strategist, Topp has been criticized in some quarters for never having sought elected office. But Calvert argued that the best politicians are also good strategists.
"We need a good strategist to lead our party. Brian's ability for strategic thinking is a huge asset, particularly in taking on the current prime minister (Stephen Harper), who is not a bad strategic thinker himself."
He also touted Topp as a "man of integrity" and praised his "courage" in advocating tax increases for the wealthy in order to pay for programs to boost the economy and opportunities for low and middle-income Canadians.
"While most leaders will shy away from the discussion about the need to rebalance our tax system, Brian has tackled it head on because Brian understands that if we are going to govern well we have to be honest about how we are going to pay for our priorities," Calvert said.
The other candidates in the race are B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, Quebec MP Romeo Saganash, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh.
They'll face-off in five all-candidates debates sponsored by the party over the next three months, as well as a number of unofficial debates, such as one planned for Toronto on Jan. 18.