With a legitimate chance to form government, the campaign stakes have never been higher for the New Democrats — and Tom Mulcair looked keenly aware of that fact Sunday.
The NDP leader took a deep breath and a protracted pause to gather himself before launching into his speech kicking off the party's so-called "Campaign for Change" in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Parliament Hill.
Mulcair has extensive political experience, including as a cabinet minister in Quebec, but on Sunday he embarked on his first full-blown federal campaign since taking over as leader from the late Jack Layton in 2011.
A lot is riding on his shoulders.
Four years ago, the New Democrats delivered a historic electoral performance, thanks largely to gains made in Quebec under Layton's leadership.
This time around, however, things are very different: instead of a distant third, the NDP has been at or near the top in a number of recent public opinion polls — rarefied air for a party far more accustomed to having little to lose.
Political observers say Mulcair's greatest challenge will be to translate the NDP's current levels of support into more seats in the House of Commons.
To do so, the party plans to emphasize how Mulcair differs from longtime Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
"Mr. Harper's priority is to spend millions of dollars on self-serving government advertising and an early election call. My priority is to invest in affordable, quality child care to help families and the economy," Mulcair said.
The NDP leader took no questions following his statement — a tactic more commonly associated with his Conservative rival than with the more media-accessible New Democrats.
He did not mention Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, setting his sights squarely on the Conservatives, whom he accused of falling short on issues like the environment, Aboriginal Peoples, government spending and political accountability.
"In each of the last three elections, Conservatives have been convicted of wrongdoing. Some have been sent to jail. One third of the Senate is under police investigation. I believe this must change once and for all."
But he saved his most powerful broadsides for one particular Conservative virtue-turned-vulnerability: the recent performance of the Canadian economy.
"Wages are falling, incomes are stagnant and household debt is skyrocketing ... middle-class families are working harder than ever but can't get ahead," he said.
"The economy has shrunk in each of the last five months and many are claiming that Canada is already in another recession ... clearly, Mr. Harper, your plan isn't working. "
Some of the main planks of the NDP platform include a promise to create a million $15-a-day child care spaces across Canada and a $15 minimum wage.
Mulcair was originally scheduled to attend the Pride parade in Vancouver, but officials said his schedule was changed to ensure he was in the national capital region for the start of his campaign.
With no immediate plans to hit the road this week, the party is taking a low-key approach in the days prior to the first leaders' debate, to be hosted by Maclean's magazine and scheduled for Thursday night in Toronto.
Indeed, rather than attend any campaign events or rallies Sunday, Mulcair opted to attend the funeral for Flora MacDonald, Canada's first female foreign minister and a member of the Conservative cabinets of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.
Harper, who was on his way to an evening campaign event in Montreal, did not attend the ceremony.
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