QUEBEC - The NDP caucus has begun splintering into rival leadership camps but New Democrats maintain they'll still be a united fighting force in Parliament come Monday.
As their colleagues plotted strategy for the resumption of Parliament, two Quebec MPs emerged Thursday from a caucus retreat to throw their support behind Thomas Mulcair.
The Montreal MP has yet to formally declare his candidacy and the move appeared designed to create the impression of a draft movement. It also seemed aimed at lending credence to Mulcair's claim that he has the support of "a very large majority" of the party's 59-member Quebec caucus.
"The person I've chosen to support is Thomas Mulcair," announced Jamie Nicholls, a rookie Montreal MP.
"He's somebody who's been very supportive to the Quebec caucus. He has helped us in so many ways."
Nicholls said there's "a groundswell of support" for Mulcair.
"Within the caucus, I've talked to a few people and they're ready to support Tom."
Francois Lapointe also backed Mulcair, calling him an "exceptional" parliamentarian.
Several other rookies from Quebec later threw their support behind Mulcair as well, including Claude Patry. Another, Robert Aubin, said he's strongly inclined to support Mulcair, whom he credited with getting him elected.
Until now, most MPs have said they're waiting to see who enters the race to succeed the late Jack Layton before deciding whom to support.
Both Lapointe and Nicholls denied they were asked to make public professions of support. But Mulcair needed to start showing some muscle to match the impressive roster of supporters already racked up by party president Brian Topp, the only declared candidate so far.
Topp is backed by party icon and former leader Ed Broadbent, Quebec MP Francoise Boivin, former British Columbia deputy premier Joy McPhail and several B.C. MLAs, including Dawn Black.
Romeo Saganash, an MP and Cree leader from northern Quebec who had been pondering his own leadership bid, is expected to throw his support behind Topp on Friday.
B.C. MP Peter Julian, who is considering a leadership bid, picked up his first two endorsements Thursday.
"I think he'd make an excellent candidate," said Windsor, Ont., MP Brian Masse. "I think it's healthy to have a number of people in there."
Toronto MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan said she believes Julian would make "a good prime minister." She said the bilingual MP is personable, "brilliant and very articulate" and would be able to connect with folks at both the boardroom table and the kitchen table.
Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, meanwhile, added her name to the lengthy list of caucus members who are testing the leadership waters.
Despite all the leadership manoeuvring, interim Leader Nycole Turmel insisted New Democrats won't be distracted from their official Opposition duties in Parliament, which resumes Monday.
"In six short months, this party will elect a new leader. Canadians can expect a spirited and respectful debate about the new ideas that will move Canada forward," she said in a speech to caucus.
"But Canadians can also be assured that the hard work won't wait six months. New Democrats know that with a Conservative government that has turned its back on families, the hard work starts now."
Turmel reiterated that the NDP will focus primarily on the floundering economy and will push the Harper government to invest in retirement security and job-creation measures, like infrastructure projects and small-business tax credits.
However, controversy continued over rules Turmel laid down Wednesday for MPs who throw their hats into the leadership ring.
In the interests of a level playing field and avoiding any conflicts of interest, Turmel told MPs that those who seek the leadership must give up their shadow cabinet posts and leadership positions in caucus and on Commons committees. She will, however, allow Mulcair and Vancouver MP Libby Davies, another possible contender, to retain their prestigious designation as deputy leaders.
Boivin, who had initially called the exemption unfair, was on side Thursday, saying she's satisfied that the deputy leader title is strictly "honorific."
But B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, a prospective candidate who had initially accepted the exemption as inconsequential, was having second thoughts Thursday.
"I'm just thinking about what the implications are and what they're not," he said, vowing to raise questions in caucus.
Some of those implications — the enhanced stature and profile the deputy leader title confers — became clear later when MPs clustered behind Turmel for her televised speech. Mulcair and Davies were accorded prime positions directly behind the podium, in full view of television cameras.
Despite some nascent signs of leadership tensions, most New Democrats confidently predicted the race will not create the kind of lasting bitterness that has torn other parties, particularly the Liberals, apart.
Asked what makes him so confident it won't turn into a slugfest, Cullen frankly replied: "An equal mix of hope and self-delusion."
More seriously, he said: "We, in fact, like each other. It's hard to believe but we do."
Julian said New Democrats "heed very, very deeply" Layton's dying call for solidarity. MPs will inevitably choose to support different leadership candidates but he said any divisions will not be deep or long-lasting because, unlike Liberals, New Democrats share the same "core values."
"Those core values will see us through this leadership process united and with a deep mutual respect of all candidates," Julian predicted.
As the race heats up, tensions are likely to be most pronounced between the Topp and Mulcair camps. The two are considered the front-runners.
Earlier this week, Mulcair took a shot at the speed with which Topp launched his campaign, suggesting it was not respectful of Layton's memory. Layton died of cancer late last month.
On Thursday, Mulcair urged his supporters to be patient, saying he won't formally announce his candidacy until he's convinced he's got a team in place all across the country.
"I have strong support within the Quebec caucus and I'm building my support within the rest of the caucus but I'm also working to find people who can help with our campaign across Canada," he said.
Mulcair noted that five provinces are holding elections this fall — Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador — which means many NDP organizers are tied up at the moment.
"When and if" he announces his candidacy, Mulcair said "it will be with a full team capable of taking up the challenge of leading the official Opposition" and presenting itself as a "government in waiting."