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Potential NDP Leaders, Are You In or Out?

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"Should I jump in or stay out?" That is the question potential NDP leadership successors are asking themselves. No one will publicly admit anything at this time, as it would be in poor taste to say anything until after this weekend, but at that point the gloves can come off and ambition and ego will be given free reign.

The media has already begun to speculate about who the potential frontrunners might be, but do these potential candidates have what it takes? That is not a rhetorical question as they must be able to build their own profile, keep the party together, and appeal to both Quebec and the rest of Canada while performing in Jack Layton's shadow.

This will be a major problem for the next NDP leader. The party fought the last election around the personality and strengths of its leader. Layton came to personify the party, the question now becomes how do they move forward and how does the next leader fill Jack's shoes? This is always a problem when a party goes overboard with elevating their leader to be the end all in an election. It doesn't allow others to step out from under the leader's shadow or give them the opportunity to create their own profile with both the public and the media. While that prevents challengers from dethroning the king, in the long run it hurts the party.

It doesn't matter who wins the crown in the next NDP leadership race because they will be constantly compared to Layton. They will be judged on how well they manage the Quebec caucus and how successful they will be in their attempt to maintain the NDP's Quebec popularity. Their success will be measured against Jack's. If polling numbers in Quebec drop, it will be a major negative for them. It will be a tough act to follow and potential leadership candidates will need to evaluate if it is better to jump in now or sit this one out and wait until there is a future leadership opening when they can be more fairly judged.

The situation today is not unlike what happened when Ed Broadbent resigned in 1989 and both Audrey McLaughlin (1989-95) and Alexa McDonough (1995-2003) had to lead the NDP while being measured against Broadbent, one of the political giants of that era and one of its most popular leaders.

Other than Thomas Mulcair and Gary Doer, most of the other potential candidates being mentioned at this time don't have the media profile and experience that is needed to become an instant leader of the Official Opposition. While there are some very talented people in the NDP caucus and organization, none of them have the profile or wide spread public acceptance that Layton did.

Even if Mulcair was to toss his hat into the race, there is no guarantee that this relative newcomer to the NDP would win. The NDP Quebec base is weak and its organization lacking. Most of the Quebec caucus have no idea what a leadership race is like, how cutthroat it can be or how career limiting it might be if they support the wrong candidate. They will be learning as they go which should make for shifting alliances as the race unfolds.

At the same time it is quite valid to question Mulcair's support across the country. Will we see an ABM campaign develop (i.e, "Anyone But Mulcair")? With a one member, one vote system, western and Ontario ridings with a larger membership base will have an excellent opportunity to decide who the new leader will be.

Gary Doer does have the profile and experience to move quickly into a leadership role and he will be able to hold his own in Question Period. The issue will be whether or not he wants to be thrust into the maelstrom of federal politics or will he prefer the life he has now. The pressure on Doer to jump in will be intense over the next few weeks.

Another question that the NDP must consider is do they want a leader who doesn't have a seat in the House of Commons. For example, should someone who is not a sitting MP win the leadership, they will have to run in a byelection. In other words, sit in the gallery of the House of Commons while others steal the spotlight in Question Period. Ask Elizabeth May how easy a task that is.

It would also give rise to plenty of speculation about which MP would be willing to step down to let the new leader run in their seat. That is rarely a positive situation or story for a party that wants to claim it is a government-in-waiting. Such a situation also leaves the new leader at the mercy of the prime minister who can decide when to call the byelection. Also keep in mind that when Stephen Harper ran in a byelection in 2002, the NDP ran a candidate against him, therefore there is no need for Tories to play nice should a future NDP leader also have to seek a seat before the next federal election.

All in all it will make for an interesting leadership campaign. Now all the future contenders have to do is decide if they are in or out.

Keith Beardsley's pundit blog can be found at www.atory01.com.

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