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Bob Rae: A Class Act Bows Out Gracefully

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In what must have been a very difficult decision, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has decided not to throw his hat into the ring as the party approaches its 2013 leadership convention.

I don't have even an ounce of the political experience that Bob Rae has, but I can admit -- having run for a spot on the Liberal Party's national executive -- that it's quite difficult for an individual to suppress the flames of a burning passion to create real change. Politics is a game in which both compliments and insults thrown your way only fan those flames.

But now that Rae is out, what are we to expect from the race for Liberal leader? Here are a few things to take note of:

One. The race will now get underway later rather than sooner.

Had Rae decided to run, other candidates would have likely chosen to declare their intentions not too long thereafter for two reasons. First, any other candidate would have a lot of catching up to do against Bob Rae who would have had the luxury of essentially having campaigned for leader for a year.

Second, any serious candidate would have wanted to attempt to polarize the race between Rae and him or herself before Justin Trudeau makes up his mind on whether or not to run. Trudeau is widely expected to spend the summer peacefully with his family and not to revisit his decision not to run until the fall. Trudeau, now the supposed front-runner, wouldn't want to risk losing momentum over the course of a campaign that could be ten months long if he declared his candidacy too soon.

With Rae out of the race and the heart of the leadership campaign unlikely to get underway until a few months from now, the party now has an opportunity to focus exclusively on rebuilding for a few months.

Much discussion (perhaps too much) -- both within party ranks and in the media -- has been dedicated over the past year to the question of whether or not Rae would seek the leadership of the party. With that short-term question now out of the way, Liberals can now shift gears and take more time to engage in a substantive discussion about the long-term future of the party.

Two. The strategic electoral calculus of the party will decisively shift toward Quebec.

Now that Trudeau is the supposed front-runner, his opponents will attempt to throw anything they can at him if he runs. Expect Trudeau's controversial comments on Quebec separatism made earlier this year to come up during the race.

Anybody taking on Trudeau on that battleground will have to either be from Quebec or co-opt elements of Quebec nationalism into their stance. Failure to satisfy one of these two conditions will allow Trudeau to use the comments to his advantage among Quebecers who choose to sign up for free as a party supporter to vote for leader.

Moreover, expect more potential candidates to throw their hats into the ring now that the race is not going to be as tilted as originally expected. Names being thrown around from Quebec include Trudeau, Montreal MPs Marc Garneau and Denis Coderre, former Justice Minister Martin Cauchon and current Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier in addition to the francophone Dominic LeBlanc from New Brunswick.

More candidates from Quebec means more discussion -- both among the grassroots and between the candidates -- on how the Liberal Party of Canada can rebuild in la belle province. This is essential, seeing as the Liberal Party of Canada since 1896 has not won a majority government without winning at least 72 per cent of the seats in Quebec.

Ad usum, a francophone has taken the helm of the Liberal Party following an anglophone leader. (Michael Ignatieff, an anglophone, was the last leader of the party.) Hence, expect more media coverage of the Quebec question during the leadership race as well, as the francophone candidates in the race will be under particular scrutiny.

Three. The leadership race will now be less polarizing.

The previous sentence is not intended in the sense that a theoretical decision by Rae to run after supposedly having pledged not to to assume the interim leadership would have been polarizing and controversial. What is implied is that a race with Rae in it would have been polarized between centre-left (Rae) and centre-right (likely Garneau), with Trudeau possibly holding ground in the centre.

All leadership contents in the history of the Liberal Party since Pierre Trudeau's retirement have been fought along left-right lines, separating the party into solid camps and creating serious infighting problems. Examples include (with the candidate representing the left coming first): Chrétien vs. Turner in 1984, Chrétien vs. Martin in 1990, Copps vs. Martin in 2003, and Rae vs. Ignatieff in 2006 and 2008.

With no clear chief rival having emerged to face off against Justin Trudeau -- and with much still to be learned by the public about where the latter actually stands on the political spectrum -- we are likely now to see a race focused more on the free exchange of ideas than on character assassination. This is an important development in the early years of the Liberal Party's rebuilding era.

In sum, Bob Rae's decision not to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party has increased the chances that the party will be able to reinvent itself and focus on what counts. A classy move by a classy guy.