02/05/2013 05:02 EST | Updated 04/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Martin Cauchon late candidate in a crowded Liberal race

Martin Cauchon doesn't really have a clear answer about why he waited until the last minute to join the federal Liberal leadership race.

Even now, his campaign website is still unfinished and lists no campaign events.

In a telephone interview, Cauchon explained he is in the private sector and had a lot of commitments. "Our team took a decision to wait until after the holidays," he said.

But he is more direct when asked why he's running:

"I'm passionate about my country...I'm ready to serve and I'm coming back because — it's no secret — I really don't like the country I see now," he said.

Though Cauchon was an MP for 10 years in the Jean Chrétien government, he is just 50 years old, "basically prime time" as he put it, the second-youngest in the nine-member field.

But, like six of the nine leadership candidates, he has the handicap of not having a seat in Parliament. He said he'd prefer to run in the Quebec riding of Charlevoix, where he was born, a seat currently held by the NDP. Cauchon ran there in 1988 as a sacrifical lamb against then prime minister Brian Mulroney. He was 22 years old.

Then, in 1993, Cauchon ran and won in Outremont. It was a good time to be a Liberal, in what was to be a 10-year stretch of three Liberal majority governments.

In 2004, Cauchon, who had not supported new leader Paul Martin, quit politics. But in 2011, he ran again in his old riding, losing to the NDP's Thomas Mulcair by 15,000 votes, a margin that appalls some Liberals.

But it's safe to say that in Quebec, as support shifted from the Bloc Québécois to the NDP, it was a bad time to be a Liberal.

Cabinet experience Cauchon's greatest asset

Cauchon’s greatest asset is his seven-year-long cabinet experience, something no-one else in the race can claim.

"It's not a popularity contest here," he said. "It's choosing the person who will be capable of leading the party and the country as well."

It's been said that Chrétien loyalists pressed Cauchon to run in order to counter the concern that some of the candidates appear to be turning away from cherished Liberal values, with Justin Trudeau disparaging the gun registry and Martha Hall Findlay attacking supply management.

At the end of the Winnipeg debate, Cauchon reminded the audience that as justice minister he instigated same-sex marriage legislation.

"Cannabis? I was one of the leaders of the country on that," he said, recalling that he advocated decriminalization years ago, although he wouldn't go as far as some his fellow contestants now who are supporting legalization and even taxation.

But, he said, "I'm a guy in the centre." He continued, "The beauty of the Liberal Party, we don't support any doctrine, like the NDP and the Conservatives. We are what I would call the pragmatic party."

If Liberals need to govern from the right to balance the books, then they will, he said, because if finances are in order, then "we're going to be able to continue building our social safety net.

"But when the time comes to be progressive, yes, I'm very progressive. That's the way I am."

Liberal red socks

Cauchon has been displaying his Liberal credentials for years by wearing red socks, and handed out pairs of them at the Winnipeg debate. "Almost no socks left! Soon every one will be wearing them," he tweeted, using the hashtag #liberalsocks.

Asked about the recent First Nations standoff in Ottawa, he replied, "If I was prime minister, I would manage to have a national meeting with the First Nation leaders, and, as well, the provinces involved. And of course I would try to go down the map of the Kelowna Accord."

On Mali, he doesn't suggest any different tack than the government is taking now, and on carbon pricing, he hedges. "I guess we should speak about carbon pricing. That's going to happen one day," he said, adding that Canada would have to move in that direction alongside the United States.

He's against a merger with the NDP, thinks a preferential ballot is "very interesting" and said he has ideas about reforming regional Employment Insurance, but won't go into details.

Cauchon perked up when asked about China. At the law firm of Heenan Blaikie, where he's a partner, he said he's led the "China group."

"It is key. We used to think of China as a low-cost production centre. China has to be seen as a big consumer marketplace, and more and more we see Canadian business going there actually to sell products. And it's going to keep growing," he said. "(Canada) just signed FIPA — that was an important step. And I believe that we should move on with the free trade agreement with China."

Asked if he'll run in 2015 as an MP if he doesn't win the leadership, Cauchon said, "We'll see."

And then, "The reason I don't answer is because I will be leader of the party."