09/20/2011 03:22 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

Former Saskatchewan premier Romanow backs Topp to succeed Layton in top NDP job

SASKATOON - Federal NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp received a big boost Tuesday in the party's birthplace when former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow said he was backing him to replace the late Jack Layton.

"The NDP must present a national governing alternative that speaks to Canadians in every part of the country," Romanow said in a statement for a news conference in Saskatoon.

"I worked closely with Brian and I know that he has the right combination of skills and experience to get the job done. He is disciplined, principled and is deeply committed to a better future for every Canadian."

Topp, who is currently NDP president, once served as Romanow's deputy chief of staff. He said Romanow's support means a lot.

"I was privileged to work in the Romanow government and to meet some of the pioneers of our movement. People who joined our party to support Tommy Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd and Allan Blakeney," he said in prepared remarks.

"I'll always remember what they told us. They would tell us they supported us in the decisions we had to make. And you do need to make difficult decisions in government. Provided we always remembered why we were in office."

Topp, a fluently bilingual Quebecer, was the first to announce his candidacy to succeed Layton, who died of cancer last month, and got early support from former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

Rookie MP Romeo Saganash entered the race on Friday. He had been widely expected to throw his support behind Topp but said he's ready to lead the party.

While Topp is racking up heavyweight endorsements, most other potential contenders are still pondering whether to take the plunge.

Thomas Mulcair hinted Monday that he may not seek the leadership because membership numbers are stacked against him. The Montreal MP pointed out that Quebec, his home base, is the only province that does not have a provincial wing. As a result, Quebec has only about 1,700 of the NDP's roughly 87,000 members, even though it accounts for more than half the party's 102 seats in the House of Commons.

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar pointed out that the leadership vote is not until March 24 so there's still plenty of time. Dewar said he's got an organizing team in place which is gauging whether he's got sufficient support and financial backing to mount an effective campaign.

"When you're talking about something as important as leadership, I think it's important to take the time to talk to people," he said.

Dewar played down the fact that Topp has already won influential endorsements from Romanow and Broadbent, among others.

"It's one-member, one-vote and Mr. Romanow has one vote like every other member," he said. "This is going to be a seven-month leadership race where it's going to be about getting out to the grassroots and actually bringing in new members. If I was to run, that would be my focus, growing the party from coast to coast to coast."

Halifax MP Megan Leslie, who's also mulling a bid, has similarly played down the importance of endorsements. In a recent interview, she noted that she joined the party in 2003 to support Layton.

"I joined to vote for Jack Layton. I cast one vote. I wasn't involved in any other way but that meant a lot to me and it's really what mattered," she said.

Broadbent endorsed Layton in that race, but Leslie said that had zero influence on her.

"I didn't know who Ed Broadbent was at that time," she confessed. "I was not political in that way. I was small 'p' politics, community grassroots organizer ... I'm not faking that. It's too embarrassing to fake."

Topp also used the event Tuesday to raise several issues concerning Western Canada, including the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Topp said he agrees with former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who said last week that the line proposed by TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. to ship oilsands crude from Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast should not be built. Lougheed said the pipeline represents a multibillion-dollar opportunity lost because Alberta would be shipping raw product south, creating upgrading jobs in Texas rather than at home.

"What would be going down that pipeline are western Canadian jobs," said Topp.

"What we would be doing with that pipeline is exactly what we should not be doing with our resources. That pipeline should not be built."

_ By Jennifer Graham in Regina with files from Joan Bryden in Ottawa