POLITICS

NDP Leadership Convention: Candidates Make Their Final Pitches To Party Members

03/23/2012 12:46 EDT
HuffPost Canada

UPDATE: (CP) It was a sprint to the finish — literally — for two of the NDP's most prominent leadership hopefuls Friday as each of the seven contenders vying to succeed Jack Layton made one final sales pitch for support.

While nearly 56,000 New Democrats had already voted in advance from the privacy of their own homes, the last-ditch appeals at the party's two-day leadership convention were aimed at the thousands more who were still to cast ballots later Friday and Saturday to determine the new leader of the Official Opposition.

LIVE BLOG: UPDATES FROM THE CONVENTION FLOOR

Front-runner Thomas Mulcair has made much of his reputation as an orator who knows how to demolish political foes and fire up his own troops with powerful stemwinders. On Friday, however, his elaborate and time-consuming floor show left him barely enough time to deliver his speech.

Most of Mulcair's allotted 20 minutes were used up by a video presentation, endorsements and the Montreal MP's slow-motion parade through the crowd, led by an incessant drum band and chanting, cheering supporters. He made it to the podium with just five minutes to spare, speaking so fast he sounded like a tape recorder stuck on fast-forward.

Toronto MP Peggy Nash, whose own floor show left her facing a similar dilemma, actually wound up being cut off mid-sentence after a speech that was already pressed for time.

Mulcair used what little time he had left to indicate he's already looking past his rival candidates and beyond the leadership race.

"Friends, we've run a positive, upbeat campaign, resolutely turned toward the future because my only adversary sits across from me in the House of Commons," he said.

Mulcair also seemed to make a deliberate pitch for second-choice support from New Democrats backing dark horse contender Nathan Cullen, who has made co-operating with Liberals the centrepiece of his campaign.

Although Mulcair himself has ruled out co-operation with Liberals under any circumstances, his slogan Friday — plastered on a huge circular LED screen rotating above his head — asserted that he's all about "uniting progressives."

"We have to reach out beyond our traditional base and rally progressives of all stripes behind the NDP banner," he said.

Veteran backroom strategist Brian Topp, widely thought to be Mulcair's main competition, cast himself as the guardian of traditional social democratic principles. He did not directly mention Mulcair on Friday but has recently taken to portraying the former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister as a centrist who would turn the NDP into another Liberal party.

"Hear this well. I'm a proud New Democrat and an unapologetic social democrat," Topp told the crowd as his own placard-waving supporters cheered wildly at the foot of the stage.

"And if we fight as social democrats, not only will we win, not only will we defeat (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper, but friends, it'll be worth it."

He used an introductory endorsement from actress Shirley Douglas, the daughter of NDP founding leader Tommy Douglas, to reinforce his message.

"We got here because of who we are and because of what we believe in," exhorted Douglas, who stood to speak after taking the stage in a wheelchair.

"As New Democrats, we can win. With Brian Topp as our leader, we will win."

While his rivals' speeches were preceded by glitzy video introductions narrated by Canadian celebrities and live endorsements from NDP luminaries, Cullen dispensed with all the hoopla. He opted to go solo on stage and speak without notes — a simple approach consistent with his "little campaign than could" narrative and making the most of Cullen's chief asset: himself.

The MP from northern British Columbia sold himself as the unifying alternative to the perceived front-runners.

"There are some folks who believe that there are good New Democrats and then there are bad New Democrats," he told the crowd.

"I fundamentally disagree with this, my friends... In the course of this race, I have defended my friend Tom Mulcair and I have defended my friend Brian Topp from such attacks because this is about family, my friends, and the real fight is not in this room."

Cullen said the real fight for New Democrats is against Harper's Conservatives.

While Cullen himself has charmed many party members, his controversial proposal for New Democrats and Liberals to field joint candidates in Tory held ridings is widely thought to have held him back.

He used his final speech to assure New Democrats that the idea won't be implemented without their agreement.

"We will have an open, we will have a respectful, we will have a democratic conversation about co-operation. That is my promise to you here today."

Nash also positioned herself as the unifying alternative to the front-runners.

"We need someone with the perfect combination of experience, qualifications and personality; I am that leader ... Never, ever underestimate the tenacity and determination of a woman leader," she thundered as the music swelled and the lights came up just before her microphone was cut off.

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar played the role of the grassroots candidate who can best engage Canadians. Like Topp, he said he'd maintain the NDP's traditional position as the voice of ordinary Canadians, particularly the most vulnerable.

"To me, this race is about these people. It's about the real majority of Canadians who have been left out by the Conservatives," he said.

"We won't win the trust of Canadians by throwing our principles aside ... Friends, we may have lost Jack, but we must not lose our way."

Dewar vowed to take on Harper and "take him down."

A record 4,629 New Democrats have registered to attend the convention in person.

TORONTO -- NDP leadership candidates are preparing their last-ditch effort to swing undecided members as their party chooses its next leader.

The seven hopefuls will have 20 minutes Friday afternoon to make their pitches to the more than 4,000 delegates at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

LIVE BLOG: UPDATES FROM THE CONVENTION FLOOR

“The issue today, from what I’m hearing from everybody on the floor, is this is about choosing the next prime minister,” said Paul Dewar supporter and MP for Timmins—James Bay Charlie Angus.

“Paul has what it takes. When he gets up there he’s gotta make people know that he can do it. The light’s got to go on, he’s got to be there strong and he’s got to be confident and relaxed. I think that is what he is thinking is most important,” Angus said.

Convention Coverage, HuffPost Style: The Huffington Post Canada brings you comprehensive coverage of the NDP leadership convention in Toronto, with photos, behind-the-scenes video, opinion and reporting from the convention floor.

Follow us at @HuffPostCanada, on our Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj's Facebook Page, on our NDP leadership site, and on our politics page and our front page. Friday, we cover candidate speeches and a tribute to Jack Layton. Saturday morning, we follow the rounds of voting that will end with the new leader.

Peggy Nash spokeswoman Zuzia Danielski said her candidate has to go on stage and “pump the crowd up as she has done all across Canada and explain again her reasons why everybody should vote for her.”

By random selection, Nash has been given the sixth spot in the showcase, right before long-shot candidate Martin Singh, and her team is thrilled with her placement.

“It’s really that final message to voters, that she is the best candidate to lead New Democrats to form government in 2015,” Danielski said.

But Thomas Mulcair supporter John Fryer told HuffPost he doesn’t think the candidates’ showcases will be make or break.

“This is not a typical convention where the people here are making the decision. The people making the decision half of them have already voted so it is in the box,” he noted. More than 50,000 NDP members have voted in advance.

“I really don’t think it matters at all what goes on this afternoon,” Fryer said, adding that he doesn’t think his candidate is capable of flopping.

“As long as he just projects that stature, that gravitas — which he does every time he opens his mouth,” Fryer said Mulcair would be able to deliver the only message that matters, that he’s the only statesman in the room and the only candidate capable of beating Stephen Harper.

“I’m going to vote here, but there is not a possibility that anybody could convince me even if they got up there naked and did a strip, could they persuade me to vote for somebody else,” said Fryer, who will have a front-row seat.

The NDP’s leadership convention in Toronto has attracted the greatest attention in the party's history: More than 4,200 delegates have registered and some 690 journalists have been accredited to cover the event, NDP spokeswoman Sally Housser said.

The two-day event kicks off at 12:30 p.m. Things may not go exactly as planned, however. The co-chair of the NDP’s socialist caucus Barry Weisleder told HuffPost he will ask the party to change its agenda so it can debate party resolutions as well.

Some convention attendees have also been delayed because of labour strife at Air Canada.

Housser said she understands the union leadership has told their members to go back to work and believes the convention won't be affected.

“We're confident that this will be resolved shortly and that all people registered will be able to join us at convention this weekend,” she said.

With files from the Canadian Press

CONVENTION SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

NDP Convention Sights and Sounds

LIVE FROM THE NDP CONVENTION FLOOR