POLITICS
10/13/2011 11:42 EDT | Updated 12/13/2011 05:12 EST

NDP Leadership Race: Thomas Mulcair The Man To Beat Stephen Harper, Supporters Say

MONTREAL — Thomas Mulcair and his supporters suggested Thursday he is the best leadership contestant New Democrats can pick if they want to beat the Tories, grow toward the centre and prove to Canadians they have the economic chops to govern.

"Prime Minister Harper is like a T-Rex, you don’t send a small dog to face him — he's going to get beaten to shreds in a second," Marc André-Morin, MP for Laurentides—Labelle, told The Huffington Post Canada. "Whereas Thom will be able to take (Harper) on."

Morin was among the 30 NDP MPs who joined Mulcair on stage Thursday (three other MPs support his candidacy but were unable to make it) at a Montreal community centre as the MP for Outremont became the sixth person to announce his bid to replace the late Jack Layton as federal leader of the New Democrats.

Although most of the MPs present were rookies and the vast majority hailed from Quebec, a handful of MPs from Ontario thew their support behind Mulcair, including Hamilton East's Wayne Marston and Thunder Bay's John Rafferty.

Morin urged New Democrats not to see the NDP leadership race as a popularity contest but rather as the chance to pick someone who, in the long run, would offer the best chance to put the NDP's plan into action.

Mulcair is competent, he has a strong personality, his intellect is beyond reproach and he doesn't back down in the face of adversity, Morin said.

"I think if we go with someone else, we will regret it."

"Thom presents the best opportunity that we have to keep the orange wave moving forward ... so that more and more Canadians feel comfortable voting NDP and giving us the keys to 24 Sussex," Dan Harris, the new MP for Scarborough Southwest, said.

Harris said he knows Mulcair has a reputation for being aggressive, but that Layton could also ruffles feathers the wrong way.

"To be decisive is an important quality in a leader and it is something that Jack had in spades. It is something that nobody talked about in the last few years because Jack really solidified the party and united the party so he didn't have to make use of the hammer very often," Harris said, suggesting that perhaps a new leader would need to call on those skills more often.

Mulcair's reputation may get more ink than it deserves but by his own admission, the NDP's Quebec lieutenant faces an uphill battle in this leadership race.

BEATING THE ESTABLISHMENT CANDIDATE

His toughest challenge comes from the perceived front-runner, Brian Topp. Topp, the former party president, has never run for office but has managed to amass an impressive list of endorsements from party giants such as former federal leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.

"I have nothing against Brian Topp except he has never been elected. He has no Parliamentary experience and that takes a big risk," said Lorne Nystrom, a former NDP MP from Saskatchewan who once ran for the NDP leadership against Alexa McDonough, and who helped introduce Mulcair Thursday along with New Brunswick NDP leader Dominic Cardy.

"(Topp) is extremely bright. He is the best tactician we have in the NDP, the best backroom guy we have, he is a good writer, he is absolutely brilliant guy — but that doesn’t mean he can make the transition to the front line. Some people can, some people can't. But being the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is not an entry level position," Nystrom said.

Mulcair told a crowd of approximately 200 that the only question NDP members should ask themselves is who is best able to drive the NDP to the next level and allow the party to form government.

"I think what really differentiates us is that I have vast experience as a public administrator that goes back to the 1970s ... and parliamentary experience," Mulcair said about himself and Topp.

A seasoned politician, Mulcair noted he was three times elected in the Quebec National Assembly and three times won a seat in the Liberal-bastion of Outremont, a Montreal riding, for the federal NDP. In fact, Mulcair was the first NDP MP to win a seat in Quebec in a general election.

OVERCOMING THE QUEBEC DISADVANTAGE

Mulcair's second challenge is overcoming what he has described as an institutional disadvantage in Quebec.

Because members of provincial NDP parties get an instant membership to the federal NDP, Quebec, which has no provincial wing, has less than two per cent of the federal party's current membership.

Therefore, Mulcair needs to grow his appeal quickly in the rest of Canada, where the NDP has thousands more members, while also signing up many new members in the province where he earned his reputation. Mulcair became known as a principled politician when as environment minister he butted heads with Jean Charest's government over a condo development in a provincial park. He chose to resign rather than accept a demotion in cabinet. His work as the NDP's Quebec lieutenant has also given him much face time in the province and indebted many of the new MPs elected in Quebec.

Already Thursday, Mulcair complained the NDP head office has to deliver membership cards much quicker than the several months some people have reported waiting.

Mulcair's supporters acknowledge their man is less well known in the rest of the country. Despite Nystrom and Cardy's presence, there was not a single MP from outside Quebec and Ontario at his event.

"Lots of work has to be done," Harris said, although he noted every single leadership candidate had to try to come out of the former leader's shadow and make themselves known to the pubic.

Nystrom believes Mulcair will resonate in the Prairies because the Montreal MP's style resembles the populism of Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker.

"If we don't win in the prairies, then we are doing something wrong," Nystrom said.

"There are lot of people in Saskatchewan who were ministers in the previous government who will be endorsing Thom in the coming weeks and months," Nystrom added.

Mulcair said he's already planning a cross-Canada trip and plans to make his campaign a clean fight about ideas.

CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE'S VALUES

He told his supporters Thursday he would work to grow the party beyond its traditional base by connecting with people's values.

"I will build the party, I will unite the party, I will continue to work tirelessly to present to Canadians a real alternative in the next election" Mulcair said.

In order to defeat Harper, Mulcair said he would work on making breakthroughs elsewhere while maintaining the NDP's support in Quebec.

"The 1.6 million Quebecers who voted for the NDP on May 2nd, very few of them had ever voted for the NDP before but we were able to show them that their values, what they wanted socially, what they wanted economically and what they wanted in terms of a determined group of men and women who could manage in the public's interest, that was the NDP. We have to do the same thing now in the rest of Canada," he told reporters after his speech.

GOOD FISCAL MANAGERS

His main point, Mulcair said, would be convincing Canadians they could trust the NDP to be good fiscal managers while still governing with social democratic principles.

"People are wary about the NDP's ability to manage the books," Harris, the NDP MP for Scarborough Southwest said. "It doesn't matter what we say about health care, about the environment, about education, about all the other causes that we are passionate about if people don't think we are going to be able to pay for what we are talking about."

“When we talk about growing the party, we have to grow it beyond just union membership and expand out to Canadians that we have never spoken to before."

"One of the widest criticisms of the NDP is fiscal prudence," echoed Jamie Nicholls, MP for Vaudreuil-Soulanges. "Thom is going to put forward the argument that we are going to be a fiscally prudent government so Canadians won't be afraid of an NDP government."

"In the memory of many Canadians I think they remember Bob Rae's (Ontario NDP) government and not necessarily Manitoba or Saskatchewan government which were fiscally prudent."

Mulcair, himself, mentioned mimicking the successful formula of people like former Manitoba NDP premier Gary Doer.

Marston, who represents former Liberal MP Sheila Copps' old riding, said he didn't think Mulcair would have to move the party to the centre in order to grow its appeal.

"Part of it is including new Canadians. There are (also) people who have traditionally voted Liberal for a long time, who are on the left of that party who are disaffected, in Hamilton I am a living example of that," Marston said.

"We’re going to have to reach out to them, and I'm pleased to hear Thom say that today, because you don't stand still and wait for them to come to you," he said.

Mulcair joins Topp, Quebec MP Romeo Saganash, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar and Nova Scotia businessman Martin Singh in the leadership race. NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Peggy Nash are still considering whether they will seek the leadership. Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm said he plans to make a decision by the end of the month.

Every NDP member gets one vote in the leadership race. The result will be determined at the party's convention on March 24, 2012.