OTTAWA - Former prime minister Paul Martin predicts the humbled federal Liberal party will re-emerge as a force to contend with by the time of the next election in just three years.

Many Liberals, including some contenders for the party's leadership, believe it will take at least two elections to dig themselves out of the electoral hole to which they were consigned in 2011, when they were reduced to a third-party rump with just 34 seats.

But Martin is more optimistic, predicting a much faster turn-around.

"I think the Liberal party is going to be in very, very good shape come the next election," Martin said Monday night outside a Liberal tribute to senior party statesman and former cabinet minister Herb Gray.

"The fact of the matter is we've got both the (Conservative) government and the (NDP) Opposition (that) are at the polar extremes of the right and the left. That's not where Canadians are.

"Canadians understand that government has to play a positive role and that it has to be fiscally responsible and they've left the door wide open for the Liberals and that's exactly where the Liberals feel most comfortable."

That applies equally in Quebec, where voters flocked to the NDP in 2011, Martin added.

"I think Quebecers have indicated that they're capable of turning on a dime ... Quebecers are not extremists."

Martin said the current leadership race is "creating a lot of momentum" and interest in the party.

The tribute for Gray, who served almost 40 years as an MP for Windsor until his retirement in 2002, was as much a showcase for those seeking to lead the party in future as it was a celebration of one of the key players from the party's glorious past.

Most of the declared contenders, and a number of soon-to-be candidates, used the occasion to circulate among the several hundred Liberal movers and shakers who attended the tribute.

Montreal MP Justin Trudeau, eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and the presumptive front-runner, was surrounded by Liberals seeking to shake his hand or have their pictures taken with him, while his rivals generally chatted with one or two Liberals at a time.

The most serious challenger to Justin Trudeau so far is Martha Hall Findlay, a former Toronto MP who ran last in the 2006 leadership contest. She officially took the plunge last week and was pressing the flesh at the Gray tribute Monday.

Long shot contenders David Bertschi, an Ottawa lawyer, and retired Canadian Forces Lt.-Col. Karen McCrimmon were also in attendance, as were several other putative dark horse candidates who intend to take the plunge soon despite Trudeau's head start and evident popularity.

"There's going to be some unconventional candidates. I'm one of them," said Toronto lawyer George Takach, who intends to formally launch his campaign on Nov. 29 with a focus on technology and the economy.

"I'm delighted that Justin's in it, don't get me wrong. He's going to bring all sorts of energy and new people into the party. But so will I."

Vancouver MP Joyce Murray, who intends to pitch her experience as a former British Columbia cabinet minister and small businesswoman when she launches her campaign early next week, said she "completely disagrees" with those who think Trudeau has already sewn up the race.

"I've worked with Justin and it's great that he's in the race. I'm so happy at the attention that it's attracting," she said.

"At the same time, people will ... also be looking, not just for a buzz because a buzz is temporary, they'll be looking for who can really lead the kind of transformation that we need in our party."

Montreal MP Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, was also in attendance but would not tip his hand as to when he expects to announce whether he's going to join the race.

"The homework is continuing apace. It won't be too long," he said.

Earlier Monday, Ottawa MP David McGuinty announced that he — like his brother, retiring Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — has decided to take a pass.

David McGuinty told The Canadian Press he's concluded he can best serve the party in other ways.

"I've reflected long and hard on what is the best way for me to help rebuild the party, what is the best way for me to help hold down the fort, do what I call a lot of the ground work, a lot of the nuts and bolts work," he said in an interview.

"And I think I am best placed at this time to do what I'm doing, which is to really build the party from the ground up, riding by riding, issue by issue, in the committees, on the floor of the House of Commons.

"I just think there's so much heavy lifting to be done that, from my perspective, this is for me the best way to serve."

McGuinty said his decision has nothing to do with the widespread perception that Trudeau has already locked up the contest, which only officially began last week and culminates April 14.

"I don't place a lot of stock in prohibitive favourites," he said, pointing out that his brother Dalton vaulted from fourth place to win the Ontario Liberal leadership in 1996.

The premier announced last month that he will retire as soon as a successor is chosen in January. Under pressure from a well-organized draft campaign, he briefly toyed with the notion of running for the federal leadership but eventually ruled that out.

In addition to the McGuinty brothers, a number of other prospective heavyweight contenders have chosen to sit out the contest, including Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, former deputy prime minister John Manley, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc and Halifax MP Geoff Regan.

Among the others who've declared their candidacies are Toronto lawyer and policy consultant Deborah Coyne, mother of Trudeau's half sister, Vancouver prosecutor Alex Burton, and David Merner, former president of the party's British Columbia wing.

However, Trudeau is the only candidate so far to officially register with the party, which includes paying the first $25,000 instalment of a $75,000 entry fee.

Related on HuffPost:

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  • Here are the 6 things you need to know about the<a href=""> Liberal leadership race for 2013</a>.

  • 6. The Dates

    The Liberal Party of Canada will hold an all-candidate showcase on April 6, 2013 in Toronto to kick off a week of voting before announcing the new leader on April 14 in Ottawa. Whoever wins will the seventh leader for the party 10 years.

  • 5. Who’s Running

    There are at least eight people challenging Justin Trudeau for the title. They are: defeated Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, lawyer and former professor Deborah Coyne (also the mother of Trudeau’s half sister), lawyer and failed Ottawa-area Liberal candidate David Bertschi, prosecutor and Vancouver Kingsway Liberal riding association president Alex Burton, the former head of the federal Liberals in B.C. David Merner and retired air force pilot and unsuccessful Ottawa-area candidate Karen McCrimmon. B.C. Liberal MP Joyce Murray and Montreal Liberal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau are expected to announce their bids next week, sources tell HuffPost. Ontario Ministry of Finance economist Jonathan Mousley has also sent emails telling reporters he is considering a run, but has not officially declared his candidacy. So far, the party hasn’t officially registered anyone’s name. Some candidates, such as Bertschi, are still collecting the 300 signatures needed in three provinces and/or territories in order to enter the race.

  • 4. Drop Outs Expected

    The party expects for candidates to drop out before debates begin in late January and had made it easy for them to do so. Liberal Party President Mike Crawley told The Huffington Post Canada the party designed a three- stage payment structure for the non-refundable $75,000 entrance fee in order to make it “really easy” for weak candidates to drop out. “The whole idea was to allow more candidates to come forward and test the waters and then as the second and third payments come up, I think candidates will see how much money they raised and whether they have the support, and they may or may not decide to continue,” Crawley said. “It is very deliberate to encourage a lot of interest at the beginning but to narrow it down to those who are serious as we begin the debates.” Candidates must hand over $25,000 the day they officially register. Those who have registered must pay another $25,000 on Dec. 15, 2012 and a third and final instalment of $25,000 on January 13, 2013. That is also the last day for any candidate to join the race. As for the debates, the first will be held in Vancouver on Jan. 20. Other dates include: Feb. 2 in Winnipeg, Feb. 16 in the Greater Toronto Area, March 3 in Halifax and March 23 in Montreal. The party executive has yet to decide on the debate format.

  • 3. Staying In The Black

    The Liberal Party might charge you to attend a debate, their showcase in Toronto on April 6 or the announcement in Ottawa on April 14. Charging admission — especially for debates — is another controversial point the party’s executive still hasn’t decided on. Liberal insiders say this is nothing new, the party charged delegates $995 to participate in the 2006 leadership selection in Montreal and charged $25 for the public to attend candidates debates. Former Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, an organizer with Trudeau’s campaign, told HuffPost he hopes the party won’t charge people even a nominal fee to attend the debates. “I understand the desire of charging a fee for a service, but we are in the business of proposing to lead a country and generating excitement about our ideas and proposals and we need to make it as accessible as possible.” While, Crawley stressed no decision has been made, he said the party is looking at cost recovery options to fund the showcase, the announcement and all the debates. Since this is also the first non-delegate convention, the party is grappling with need to keep costs low. The party fears the candidates’ registration fee and the 10 per cent levy on all the money raised during the campaign may not be enough to keep the party in the black during this five-month race.

  • 2. Dirty Tricks Possible With ‘Supporters’?

    For the first time, Liberals are inviting non-members to vote for leader. But some in the party believe these supporters should still have to pay to cast a ballot. The party created a “supporter” category at their last convention in January 2012 that allows anyone who is interested in the Liberals to pledge their support online and vote for the national leader in April. So far, 30,000 people have signed up to be supporters. The supporter category is controversial. Some party members suggest only serious devoted Liberals should be allowed to cast a ballot and members and supporters should have to pay to vote in the race. Although the rules say a fee could be applied, Liberal Party President Mike Crawley told The Huffington Post Canada he is staunchly opposed to the idea. “This is not something that I support,” he said flatly Tuesday. “I would be surprised if we end up putting a fee on voting.” But some candidates, such as B.C.’s Joyce Murray, see value in having a nominal fee attached to a vote as a way of ensuring only genuine supporters cast a ballot. She also doesn’t think $5 will discourage anyone who wants to vote from doing so. “I think the principle of ensuring that supporters are real genuine supporters it is an important one and I leave it to the board to qualify supporters to ensure that our intention, which is that those are people who are genuinely in support of the Liberal Party, is what we are getting,” she told HuffPost Wednesday. Murray said that when the party opened up its leadership race, people understood there was a risk that some people from “for example the Conservative Party” would sign up as supporters in order to try to influence the outcome. <a href="">The Tories, who are currently defending themselves from allegations that they purposefully misdirected voters to non-existent polling stations</a>, are not above such tricks, she said. “It wouldn’t be surprising if they would have a concerted, strategic, co-ordinated attempt to change the outcome of this race. So we have to be practical and we have to have measures that as best as possible ensure that won’t happen,” she said.

  • 1. Supporters Could Be Denied The Vote

    Even if you sign up to be a supporter, you could still be denied the ability to vote. The Liberals are looking at ways of verifying that supporters are who they say they are. The aim is to ensure supporters live where they say they do (the votes are weighted by electoral district) and that they are not a member of another political party. Crawley said the party is not sure yet how they are going to verify everyone’s identify and their party affiliation. He said the party will ask supporters to register and to supply additional information but declined to elaborate. The party’s executive has until March 17 to decide on registration procedures.

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  • Liberal Leadership Race 2013

    Here are the remaining candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

  • Justin Trudeau

    Age: 40 Occupation: MP for Montreal-area riding of Papineau <a href="">Website</a>

  • Joyce Murray

    Age: 58 Occupation: Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, former B.C. Liberal environment minister <a href="">Website</a>

  • Martha Hall Findlay

    Age: 53 Occupation: Former Liberal MP for Willowdale and 2006 leadership candidate <a href="">Website</a>

  • Martin Cauchon

    Age: 50 Occupation: Lawyer, former Montreal Liberal MP <a href="">Website</a>

  • Deborah Coyne

    Age: 57 Occupation: Lawyer, professor <a href="">Website</a>

  • Karen McCrimmon

    Occupation: A retired Lieutenant-Colonel in the Canadian forces and mediator. <a href="" target="_hplink">Website</a>