POLITICS

NDP leadership hopefuls making final sales pitches to party members

03/23/2012 01:37 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - 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.

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."

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, the youngest candidate at 29, played up her devotion to practicing "the new politics." But she also dished up a dose of old-style politics with a direct warning to Harper.

"You try to divide us based on language, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, anything to get you your votes. You have manipulated and debased our own democratic system," she charged.

"Stephen Harper, here is my message to you: Enjoy being prime minister — while it lasts."

Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh, who was fined by the party after he refused to apologize for repeatedly accusing Topp of lying, used his final speech to strike a more conciliatory tone. He acknowledged that his attempt to be "a straight-talker" in the campaign didn't sit well with rivals.

"I know it's made some of my opponents a little bit upset with me at times and I may not appear on their Christmas card list this year. But I would like to say to them and to all the leadership candidates, despite our differences ... I believe that any one of you would make fine leaders of our great party."

Singh, expected to be among the first candidates scratched from the ballot, has already indicated that he'll throw his support to Mulcair.

A record 4,629 New Democrats have registered to attend the convention in person. However, there were still plenty of empty seats in the cavernous hall Friday afternoon as the candidates made their final appeals.