POLITICS

Thomas Mulcair: How The New Leader Of The NDP Won It All

03/25/2012 08:07 EDT | Updated 05/25/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Two very different Thomas Mulcairs were on display during the marathon NDP leadership race.

The first — prickly, thin-skinned, whiny, almost paranoid — helped persuade the party to make two decisions that ultimately allowed the second — affable, collegial, charming — to emerge and go on to win the race, with help along the way from some dubious polls published by the media and by a rival contender.

The Montreal MP had long been considered the front-runner to succeed Jack Layton, but that assumption was challenged within days of the leader's death last August, when Brian Topp's name surfaced as the thinly disguised favourite of the late leader's brain trust.

A mere three weeks after Layton succumbed to cancer, Topp was first out of the gate, backed by an impressive roster of party luminaries including former leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.

Topp's strategists maintain the "shock and awe" campaign launch was designed strictly to make journalists — and New Democrats — take the veteran backroom strategist's candidacy seriously.

"Brian was an unknown. There was a need for a bit of oomph," says a senior Topp strategist.

But the Mulcair camp saw Topp's dramatic emergence as a sign that the party establishment was trying to stack the odds against him. It was particularly concerned that Layton's death-bed manifesto on social democracy, which Topp had helped craft, appeared to instruct the party to hold a leadership contest in January after a brief, four-month contest.

Mulcair needed more time to raise his profile outside Quebec and to build up a support base in his home province, which accounted for a meagre two per cent of NDP members — even though it had delivered 59 seats to the party in last May's election, vaulting the NDP into official Opposition status for the first time in its 50-year history.

Mulcair hinted broadly that he wouldn't run at all if the contest was held in January. He called on the party to fund a membership drive in Quebec and he complained that the party was tardy in processing new membership cards signed up in the province.

"We are disadvantaged (in Quebec)," Mulcair groused at one point. "It's not a complaint, it's a simple observation."

Determined to cultivate the NDP's newfound Quebec base, the party's federal council eventually agreed to set a late March date for the leadership vote, giving Mulcair the time he desperately needed to mount an effective campaign.

After some internal wrangling, it also agreed with the Mulcair camp's push to hold the first of six leadership debates in early December, rather than wait until the new year.

"Without (that early debate), Tom would've had a much harder time getting his campaign off the ground," says a senior Mulcair strategist.

The debate burst Topp's bubble. It gave New Democrats their first chance to compare his untested retail politicking skills against that of more seasoned performers. Mulcair was deemed the winner by a number of pundits.

The Ottawa debate also marked the debut of a new Mulcair. Gone was the thin-skinned paranoia about the party being out to get him. The new Mulcair was relaxed, soft-spoken, collegial, affable, charming — a demeanour he stuck to religiously for the rest of the contest and the antithesis of the mercurial, abrasive hot-head his critics had made him out to be.

"It was a very conscious effort to deconstruct some of these pretty far-fetched rumours that he's difficult to work with," says the Mulcair strategist.

It was also the product of Mulcair finally putting a disciplined campaign team in place. His campaign director, Raoul Gebert, the head of the party's Quebec wing, had come on board only a week before the debate. And insiders say he'd made it clear he'd take on the task only if Mulcair agreed to be resolutely positive for the remainder of the contest.

"Mulcair's campaign was a train wreck at the beginning," observes an admiring insider with a rival camp. "They've recovered and run a very good front-runner's campaign."

The upside of Mulcair's initial griping about Quebec's lack of influence in the leadership contest was that it helped to cement him in the minds of New Democrats as "the Quebec candidate," even though the fluently bilingual Topp had been born and raised and cut his political teeth in the province.

So, when public opinion polls in mid-December suggested the tide had turned on the NDP's orange wave in the province, Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, was the obvious beneficiary. Knowing their hopes of forming government in 2015 hinged on maintaining their historic Quebec gains, panicky New Democrats started turning to the one leadership contender with any profile in the province to do it.

"If the word Quebec is in the sentence, it helps Mulcair," confided a strategist for a rival camp.

The NDP was also slumping nationally in the polls — a fleeting phenomenon, as it turned out, but one which was widely attributed to the party's lacklustre performance in the House of Commons while its best performers, including Mulcair, were off campaigning for the leadership.

Choosing a leader who'd be able to hit the ground running in Parliament became more of a factor for New Democrats, boosting Mulcair and hurting Topp, who had no seat.

If anxiety about their tenuous hold on Quebec helped Mulcair, it positively killed the hopes of Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, whose tortured French was agony to francophone ears. But Dewar's camp devised a clever distraction tactic, releasing an internal poll the day after the party's first leadership debate in Quebec in mid-February.

The poll purported to show Mulcair in the lead, with 25 per cent support, followed relatively closely by Peggy Nash and Dewar and with Nathan Cullen and then Topp further back. It also suggested Dewar had the most second choice support.

Despite charges from other camps — Topp's in particular — that it was a "push poll" designed to produce a result favourable to Dewar, the poll changed the media narrative of the campaign: Mulcair was the undisputed front-runner and Topp was suddenly an also-ran, unworthy of mention in news stories for weeks afterward.

Other camps believe the poll was a huge mistake, giving Mulcair momentum and raising Cullen to the role of the dark horse who could potentially overtake the front-runner — a role Dewar had been hoping to play himself.

"They were clever tacticians but some of the dumbest strategists," a Topp insider says of the Dewar team.

But a Dewar strategist argues that fundraising numbers and endorsements would have eventually made it clear that Mulcair was the in the lead anyway. And he says the poll kept Dewar in the game, at least in the media, long after he was no longer a factor.

Topp had to fight his way back into contention in the final stages of the race by going negative. He took direct aim at Mulcair's purported goal of moving the party to the centre, and with a week to go, unleashed his biggest weapon — Broadbent — to openly question Mulcair's temperamental suitability to be leader.

The ploy worked, re-establishing Topp as Mulcair's main rival. But it came at a cost, limiting his second choice support among New Democrats worried about the long-term unity of the party.

Running comfortably ahead and with ally Martin Singh, a long-shot contender, playing the role of attack dog against Topp, Mulcair was able to stick to his resolve to keep his combative instincts under strict control.

And so the second Mulcair — the congenial, positive, upbeat Mulcair — floated above the fray, all the way to victory on Saturday.

Also on HuffPost

Thomas Mulcair
NDP Convention Sights and Sounds