With the House of Commons getting ready to close its doors for the summer, how have the main party leaders performed? In the second of three articles, we look at Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats.

When parliamentarians returned to work last September, the Conservatives and New Democrats were neck-and-neck in the polls. Thomas Mulcair and his NDP were positioning themselves as the government-in-waiting. But then the New Democrats were overtaken by events, and one in particular: the naming of Justin Trudeau as the new Liberal leader.

Though some polls were hinting at the potential for such a shift, most scoffed at the likelihood that the NDP could be so easily supplanted by the “lightweight” Montreal MP.

The early warning signs were there, however. Once the Liberal leadership race kicked off, attention turned from the NDP and their new leader to the fate of the third party. Byelections in the fall in Victoria, Calgary Centre, and Durham did not go particularly well for New Democrats, as the party was a complete non-factor in Calgary Centre, finished well behind in Durham, and was almost upset by a surging Green Party in Victoria. Nevertheless, their win there gave the New Democrats something to gloat about.

The NDP made a play for their Quebec base through their proposed changes to the Clarity Act, recognizing a referendum result of 50 per cent plus one as the minimum needed to begin negotiations. The proposal helped solidify their nationalist bona fides within the province, but was not well received outside of Quebec. However, it was a bold move keeping in line with the principles of the party, whereas neither Liberals nor Tories have ventured anything that would further clarify a relatively vague law.

Mulcair also solidified his position as leader of the party at the NDP’s convention earlier this year, securing 92 per cent on a leadership vote that rivaled the totals put up by Jack Layton during his tenure. Mulcair also managed to get the party to adopt a watered-down preamble concerning the party’s socialist roots, and the convention was generally received as an endorsement of the direction he is taking the party, following in the footsteps of Layton himself.

But the byelection in Labrador put an exclamation point on the decreasing support the NDP has been experiencing in the polls. The riding was not a particularly good one for the New Democrats and was dominated by the local face-off between Peter Penashue and Yvonne Jones. The NDP’s third place finish did nothing to blunt the perception that Liberals have replaced New Democrats as the main alternative to the Conservative government.

After a strong performance in the House of Commons questioning the prime minister on the Wright/Duffy affair, however, Mulcair demonstrated that he has been far from supplanted as the main opposition leader in parliament. And with his party’s renewed emphasis on their long-standing proposals to abolish the Senate, Mulcair has found himself on the right side of public opinion. It puts the Trudeau Liberals in the unenviable position of defending the unpopular Senate, and it seems clear this will be just one of the many instances the NDP will use to highlight the differences between themselves and Liberals.

The polls suggest they have a lot of work to do to make up the lost ground. The party was only three points behind the Conservatives with 31 per cent support in September. They averaged five points behind the Conservatives in May — but also 17 points behind the Liberals, with only 23 per cent support. The party has tumbled from first place to second in Quebec and Atlantic Canada and second to third in the rest of the country.

The NDP needs to pull itself back in the running to remain the official Opposition before they can aspire to form Canada’s next government.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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  • Little-Known Mulcair Facts

    Here are some facts you may not have known about NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. (CP)

  • 10. He Used To Be A Liberal

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mulcair" target="_hplink">Mulcair was Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks</a> in Jean Charest's Liberal government in Quebec. He served in the role from 2003-2006. (CP)

  • 8. He's French (Kind Of)

    Mulcair married Catherine Pinhas in 1976. She was born in France to a Turkish family of Sephardic Jewish descent. <a href="http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1158289--thomas-mulcair-s-wife-catherine-a-psychologist-and-political-confidante?bn=1" target="_hplink">Mulcair has French citizenship through his marriage</a>, as do the couple's two sons. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 7. They Used To Be Friends

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mulcair" target="_hplink">Mulcair left Charest's Liberal government in Quebec </a>after he was offered the position of Minister of Government Services in 2006, an apparent demotion from Minister of the Environment. Mulcair has said his ouster was related to his opposition to a government plan to transfer land in the Mont Orford provincial park to condo developers. (CP)

  • 6. Ancestor Was Premier Of Quebec

    Mulcair's great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor%C3%A9_Mercier" target="_hplink">Honoré Mercier, the ninth premier of Quebec</a>. (Public Domain/Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

  • 5. First!

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mulcair" target="_hplink">Mulcair was the first New Democrat to win a riding in Quebec during a federal election</a>. He held the riding of Outremont during the 2008 election after first winning the seat in a 2007 by-election. Phil Edmonston was the first New Democrat to win a seat in Quebec, but his win came in a 1990 by-election. Robert Toupin was the very first to bring a Quebec seat to the NDP, but he did it in 1986 by crossing the floor. (Alamy)

  • 4. He's Half Irish.

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mulcair" target="_hplink">Mulcair's father Harry Donnelly Mulcair was Irish-Canadian</a> and his mother Jeanne French-Canadian. His father spoke to him in English and his mother in French -- explaining his fluency in both official languages. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

  • 3. He Votes In France

    Muclair has voted in past French elections, but after becoming leader of the Official Opposition <a href="http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1157191" target="_hplink">he said he would not cast a ballot in the French presidential vote</a>. (Thinkstock)

  • 2. Young Love At First Sight

    <a href="http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1158289--thomas-mulcair-s-wife-catherine-a-psychologist-and-political-confidante?bn=1" target="_hplink">Mulcair met his future wife at a wedding when they were both teenagers</a>. Catherine was visiting from France. They married two years later when they were both 21. (CP)

  • 1. Mr. Angry

    <a href="http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/03/16/thomas-mulcair-is-mr-angry/" target="_hplink">Mulcair was given the moniker in a Maclean's headline</a>, but the new leader of the NDP has long been known for his short fuse. In 2005, he was fined $95,000 for defamatory comments he made about former PQ minister Yves Duhaime on TV. The comments included French vulgarity and an accusation that alleged influence peddling would land Duhaime in prison.

  • UP NEXT: Canadian Politicians Who Have Tried Marijuana

  • Rob Ford

    Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says he has had his <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/28/rob-ford-marijuana-wynne_n_3831389.html" target="_blank">fair share of marijuana</a>. "Oh, yeah. I've smoked a lot of it."

  • Justin Trudeau

    The federal Liberal leader opened up to HuffPost about his experience with marijuana in August. "Sometimes, I guess, I have gotten a buzz, but other times no. I’m not really crazy about it.”

  • Tom Mulcair

    The Opposition leader's office told HuffPost this summer that Mulcair <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/22/justin-trudeau-marijuana-peter-mackay_n_3797481.html" target="_blank">has smoked in the past</a> but not since he was elected to office. Mulcair was elected to the National Assembly of Quebec in 1994.

  • Jim Flaherty

    Said the <a href="http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v02/n506/a09.html" target="_blank">Tory finance minister</a>: "Yeah, in my teenage years... a couple of times, I have to admit: I didn’t like it."

  • Marc Garneau

    The Liberal MP and Canada's first astronaut said he tried marijuana as a <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Politics/Power+%26+Politics/ID/2402495133/" target="_blank">student in the 1970s in England. </a> "It's not my thing. I stopped because it wasn't doing anything for me."

  • Kathleen Wynne

    The premier of Ontario said she <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/28/kathleen-wynne-marijuana-pot_n_3830736.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-politics" target="_blank">smoked pot decades ago</a>. "I have smoked marijuana but not for the last 35 years."

  • Darrell Dexter

    Said the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/29/darrell-dexter-marijuana-pot_n_3837009.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-politics" target="_blank">premier of Nova Scotia</a>: "Like every other person I knew back in the '70s when I went to university, some of whom are actually in this room, I would have tried it, the same as other people at that time."

  • Christy Clark

    Said the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/01/christy-clark-marijuana-use-pot_n_1469321.html" target="_blank">premier of British Columbia</a>: "I graduated from Burnaby South Senior Secondary in 1983 and there was a lot of that going on when I was in high school and I didn't avoid it all together."

  • Tim Hudak

    The leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario admitted he's <a href="http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2011/08/18/hudak_admits_to_smoking_pot.html" target="_blank">puffed in the past.</a> "I was a normal kid, I had a normal upbringing, a normal life in university. I experimented from time to time with marijuana. It’s a long time ago in the past and in the grand scheme of things."

  • Paul Martin

    The former prime minister of Canada <a href="http://www.ctvnews.ca/" target="_blank">told CTV News</a>: "The answer is: I never smoked. I never smoked anything, but there was an earlier time, years ago, when (my wife) made some brownies and they did have a strange taste."

  • Kim Campbell

    The former prime minister admitted while running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives that <a href="http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/08/22/chris-selley-trudeau-pot-revelation-underscores-one-of-his-few-actual-policy-positions/" target="_blank">she tried weed.</a> "And I inhaled the smoke."

  • Jack Layton

    Said the former NDP leader: "Yes, and some might say I never exhaled."

  • Dalton McGuinty

    The former premier of Ontario said he <a href="http://www.cfdp.ca/cita99.htm" target="_blank">experimented in his teens</a>, but only twice.

  • Brad Wall

    The premier of Saskatchewan said he was an <a href="http://www.canada.com/topics/news/politics/story.html?id=f23471e8-be96-46cf-9c1f-b43d5c497cdd" target="_blank">"infrequent" user back in university.</a> "It didn't really do anything for me, luckily, because for some, it does lead to other things."