OTTAWA - One of the key architects of the NDP's historic breakthrough in Quebec is taking charge of Brian Topp's leadership campaign.
Raymond Guardia has been named Topp's campaign director.
The move is something of an organizational coup for the Quebec-born Topp — the former party president has already racked up an impressive roster of endorsements, including former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow. Topp was a member of Romanow's staff when he was premier.
It comes just one week before Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, considered Topp's chief rival, is expected to take the leadership plunge.
Mulcair has been positioning himself as the candidate best able to hold on to the party's gains in Quebec.
But Guardia, the NDP's top organizer in the province, thinks Topp is best positioned to pick up the torch from fallen leader Jack Layton, who died of cancer in August.
"I just think what we did during the last campaign was fantastic," Guardia said in an interview. "We had a fantastic leader, we had a very positive message that connected with Quebecers. I'm proud of the campaign I ran.
"And I think Brian will be viewed as sort of the continuity of that strategy. ... I just see an upside for us in Quebec and I think we can consolidate there and I think we can build elsewhere in the country with Brian as well."
Guardia was the NDP's Quebec campaign director in last spring's election, when the party captured 59 of the province's 75 seats.
Mulcair expressed "total surprise" at his friend Guardia's decision to join Topp's campaign.
Speaking outside the Commons on Friday, Mulcair downplayed Topp's Quebec roots while giving Guardia much of the credit for the party's success in the province, which became known as the Orange Crush.
"If there is one person, besides Mr. Layton and myself, who can claim to be the architect of the Orange Crush, it certainly is Raymond Guardia. I will owe him this, whoever he works for," Mulcair said Friday.
"I have great respect for Mr Topp. But one simple fact: we did not see him in Quebec in the last five years."
Mulcair said he would have liked to have had Guardia in his camp — "an exceptional organizer," he called him — but added his participation "will only ensure a more interesting race."
After the election, Guardia became Layton's senior adviser on Quebec. He's continued in that role for interim leader Nycole Turmel, helping the raft of rookie Quebec MPs find their feet.
He is now taking a leave of absence to head Topp's leadership campaign.
Despite the party's electoral breakthrough in Quebec, the NDP has no machine and few members in the province. Mulcair has complained that the lack of Quebec members puts him at a disadvantage in the one-member, one-vote leadership contest.
But Guardia said the contest offers an opportunity to build membership in the province. He said he and Topp worked together in the 1980s to help drum up 15,000 NDP members in Quebec and "there's absolutely no reason why we can't do it again."
Guardia and Topp, who headed Layton's national campaigns in 2006 and 2008, have also worked together professionally as executives with the union of radio and television performers.
Some of Mulcair's caucus supporters have cast doubt on Topp's ability to take on Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mulcair himself has noted that Topp has "never been elected to anything in his life."
Guardia scoffed: "I have absolutely no doubt that Brian can go toe-to-toe intellectually with Stephen Harper."
He insisted his choice was not a matter of deciding not to support Mulcair, whom he helped first get elected in a 2007 byelection.
"Tom offers an awful lot. He's a tremendous MP, he's got tremendous profile, he's a great performer in the House of Commons," Guardia said.
"This issue of who do you want as a leader is a different issue. ... There's a bunch of criteria and at the end of the process, I came to the conclusion that because of Brian's experience across the country, his experience in a social democratic government, his commitment to our values, for all those reasons I just came to the conclusion that it was Brian that I wanted to support."