MONTREAL - The contours of the NDP leadership race began to take shape Tuesday as another big name expressed his interest amid further talk of the party's merger with the Liberals.
NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair announced he is gauging support for a leadership bid.
"It's too early to say anything other than the fact that I'm thinking about it," he said.
The 56-year-old indicated he would likely wait until after the House of Commons resumes sitting on Sept. 19 to say what he will do. He also wants to see the rules of the leadership contest which will be announced Sept. 9.
Mulcair had kept a relatively low profile since Jack Layton's death last week. He spoke openly on Tuesday about beginning a consultation process that would include putting a communication and fundraising team in place.
"I am receiving lots of support, lots of interest, and not only in Quebec where support is extremely strong," he said before giving a speech to law students at McGill University.
"But it is going to be a pan-Canadian campaign and the support has to be there as well."
The fluently bilingual Montreal MP, who has represented the party in the Commons since 2007, joined NDP president Brian Topp in expressing interest in becoming leader of the official Opposition.
While Mulcair and Topp are almost certain to run and are already touted as front-runners, a host of others are assessing their chances.
Ottawa MP Paul Dewar has said his name should be left on the list of possible contenders. And three other MPs — British Columbia's Peter Julian, and Nova Scotia's Robert Chisholm and Megan Leslie — told The Canadian Press on Tuesday they're considering whether to enter the race.
A fourth — Winnipeg MP Pat Martin — said he'll throw his hat in the ring if no leadership candidate emerges to champion the idea of uniting with the Liberals.
"If none of the candidates are willing to do so, then I'll throw my hat in the ring and be the unity candidate myself because I feel that strongly it's what we have to do," Martin said.
By co-operation, Martin said he means everything "up to and including" outright merger of the two parties, which he believes is "an inevitability anyway."
Mulcair refused to categorically reject a merger on Tuesday, but appeared to suggest the NDP should seek out supporters among Liberal ranks.
"Our sole goal is to form a government, and the way to do so is to have ideas that connect with the most Canadians possible," he said, pointing out the Liberals had previously turned down an NDP merger offer.
"Wherever these progressive forces come from, we will ensure we have enough Canadians to form the next government."
The other leadership possibles had little to offer Tuesday except to say they are testing the waters.
Chisholm, a newly elected MP who formerly led the Nova Scotia NDP, said he is thinking about running, stressing "that's all I'm doing at this point."
Leslie said she's "still reeling a bit" from Layton's death and hasn't stopped to really think about a leadership bid of her own. But she's honoured that others are encouraging her to run.
"I'm not saying I've ruled it out but I haven't even had a chance to breathe and think about it."
Both Chisholm and Leslie could be handicapped by the fact they are not fluently bilingual.
Chisholm, who is currently in a French immersion program in Quebec, called his French "a work in progress." Leslie said she can speak French but conceded: "I can improve ... It's not beautiful."
Mulcair stunned many in 2007 by winning a Liberal stronghold in Montreal to become the NDP's first MP from Quebec in almost 20 years.
His tireless networking is credited with laying the foundations for the party's landslide victory in the province in the May election.
His experience of Quebec politics will loom large given that more than half of the NDP's caucus comes from the province.
Already a consensus is emerging within the NDP that the next leader should be bilingual and able to build on Layton's appeal in Quebec, a notion Mulcair made no effort to refute on Tuesday.
"He would obviously be a very serious candidate if he decides to run," said Hugo Cyr, an NDP adviser and law professor at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal.
"He is very much appreciated in Quebec, and is very much appreciated by the members. He has charisma."
But Cyr added that being from Quebec could also be a liability for Mulcair, depending on the rules of the leadership race.
Quebec, after all, has the fewest NDP members of any province.
Mulcair's bid faces a number of other challenges — he has little profile outside of Quebec and has a reputation for being prickly and hot-tempered.
But Mulcair is also one of the few in the NDP caucus to possess cabinet experience, having served as Quebec's environment minister in the early years of Jean Charest's Liberal government.
A former cabinet colleague suggested that while Mulcair did rub some of his fellow ministers the wrong way, he was nevertheless respected for his political acumen.
"He's a very enthusiastic man, but he can be impulsive at times," said the former minister, who requested anonymity.
"He can get carried away."
Mulcair ultimately left cabinet after disagreeing with Charest over his government's support for a condo development in a provincial park.
Another potential problem facing Mulcair's leadership bid is convincing the NDP's rank-and-file of his commitment to the party.
Mulcair likes to recall a dinner at a restaurant in Layton's hometown of Hudson, Que., where the NDP leader convinced him to run for the party.
But he reportedly entertained offers from several other parties as well, including the Conservatives. His choice to join the NDP surprised his former Quebec Liberal colleague.
"When we worked together, he never struck me as a leftist," the person said.
They added, though, that his political shrewdness could benefit the NDP.
"I think Tom would make a good leader," the former provincial minister said.
"If there's one person who can help the NDP reach power one day, it's Tom Mulcair."
— With files from Joan Bryden in Ottawa