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Liberal Party Primaries Could Give Grits Much-Needed Boost, But Idea Is Fraught With Risks

The Liberal Party is considering opening up its next leadership race to the public. Such a move comes with both risks and rewards.

Interim Leader Bob Rae has been speaking this week about how to renew the Liberal Party and his support for a US-style primary system, in which anyone who registers as a supporter of the party can vote for its next leader, has been one of the more interesting proposals.

In the United States, the choice of a presidential nominee is a process that lasts for more than a year. It energizes the parties and prepares them for the eventual campaign. It also gives the general public a very good and long look at the candidates. By the time Americans head to the polls next year, they will know the Republican nominee almost as well as they know Barack Obama.

And they will certainly know the nominee more than Canadians knew Michael Ignatieff. Despite leading the party for more than two years, many Canadians were unfamiliar with the Liberal leader and much of their opinion had been formed by Conservative attack ads.

But an open primary comes with some risks, since it can result in the selection of a leader that will not be able to work with Liberal MPs in the House of Commons and party organizations throughout the country. Though unlikely, it can also be “sabotaged” by the Liberals’ adversaries. If the New Democrats had an open primary, one can imagine that the Conservatives, Liberals, and Bloc Québécois might try to get one of the lesser known aspirants elected as leader.

Unless the New Democrats plunge in the polls after their next leader is revealed, the Liberals will need to do something in order to get themselves back in the game. An open primary just might do the trick, despite the potential pitfalls.

Though the Liberals will not make their choice until the first half of 2013, the prospect of an open primary makes public opinion polls on who should be the next leader more relevant.

The last poll on potential Liberal leadership candidates was conducted in early September by Léger Marketing. That poll found that Justin Trudeau was the favourite at 21 per cent. He has, however, stated he has no intention to run for the leadership.

Mr. Trudeau was closely tailed by Bob Rae, who came in with 19 per cent support. One of the conditions of his being named interim leader was that he would not run for full leadership, but there are doubts that he will stay out of the race -- particularly when there are no other "front-runners."

After Mr. Rae were four figures with support ranging between three and six per cent. Jean Charest topped this group. Though the timing could work for the Quebec Premier, a leadership run seems unlikely. Gerard Kennedy, who was defeated in the federal election, and Dominic Leblanc, a likely candidate, were also included.

Apart from Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Charest, the top Quebec candidate in the poll was Denis Coderre. He has long been one of the more visible members of the Quebec caucus, but Mr. Coderre recently topped a poll for Montreal’s next mayor, beating out other potential candidates by a wide margin. Montreal will elect its next mayor in 2013, meaning Mr. Coderre might need to choose between a run for the Liberal leadership and the mayor’s office.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.

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