The contest for president of the Liberal Party of Canada is shaping up to be a two-way battle that will be decided in Ottawa on the weekend.
Sheila Copps and Mike Crawley are leading the pack of five candidates vying for the job. One will be chosen by delegates at the upcoming Liberal policy convention, which opens on Friday.
Ron Hartling, Alexandra Mendes and Charles Ward are also in the running, but it's Copps and Crawley who have garnered most of the attention leading up to the vote.
They have laid out their assessments of what's broken with the Liberal party and how it should be fixed following its historic defeat in the last federal election, and say they are committed to rebuilding it.
"The party has a unique opportunity to build from the ground up, and we have to accept that we are the authors of our own misfortune," Copps said in an interview. The former MP is running with the slogan "Strength. Determination. Grit."
"My experience in the last few months travelling across the country is that most Liberals have realized that our intense, internal navel-gazing has cost us," the former cabinet minister said.
Copps says the biggest message in the "manifesto" she released last week is that the party needs to be more inclusive. She notes in it that Liberals spent too much time fighting among themselves and now sit in the penalty box.
However, Crawley, takes issue with that analogy and says the Liberals suffered their bitter defeat for a different reason.
"We're not in government because Canadians didn't like what we had to offer, and we have got to get that through our heads,” Crawley said.
Candidates call for more open party
The Toronto businessman ,who was behind a start-up renewable power company, is a long-time Liberal who was president of the party’s Ontario wing.
He says he's putting an emphasis in his campaign on how to create a party that is open to ideas from anyone with a fresh and bold policy idea — not just from Liberals. Anyone should be able to get an idea to the caucus on Parliament Hill easily, he said.
"That is certainly a different emphasis than Ms Copps, and I also have put a much greater focus on getting cohesion in the party so that we have one single game plan going forward," said Crawley, whose slogan is "A Bold New Red."
However, for all their efforts to distinguish themselves from each other, Copps and Crawley have a lot in common when it comes to what the party needs to do to rebuild. They both talk about opening the party up and involving the grassroots more; they both talk about making the party more innovative and about campaigning between election campaigns; they both recognize the Liberals need new fundraising techniques.
But the leadership decision made by delegates this weekend will partly determine how the party is overhauled in the coming years.
"We come from different positions on where the party is at, which is why it's not surprising that we end up at different places in terms of where the party should go," Crawley said about his main rival in the contest.
Copps describes as off base any portrayals of her being the wrong person to lead the party through a transformation and renewal phase because she's been around for so long. Her experience as an MP – she was first elected in 1981 – is an asset in her view, and she says she is newer to the party’s operational scene than Crawley because she's never held a party office position.
The next party president will oversee the election of its permanent leader. Following Michael Ignatieff's resignation as leader in the wake of the May 2011 election, the party's national board of directors stipulated that the interim leader should not seek the job on a permanent basis. Bob Rae agreed to that condition and has consistently said he will abide it.
Winner to be announced Sunday
There's nothing stopping the party from deciding later to lift that condition or for Rae to ignore it should he decide he wants the job permanently.
Copps has said that if Rae made a commitment not to run, and then ran, he would have to explain his position to voters. She said she wants the process to be open and to include many candidates.
Crawley says he doesn’t have a view on the leadership, and that as president he would remain neutral.
"My role is to run a fair and open process," he said. "If Mr. Rae said he's not going to contest the permanent leadership position — if he changes his mind — there's no rule change or anything that is required. It's simply between him and the membership of the party in terms of how he got to that point."
Crawley says his role would be to ensure that Rae did not continue as interim leader if he made a decision to try to become the permanent leader.
The candidates have already faced off in debates, but the most important one will come at the convention Friday night where they will have the opportunity to make their final pitches.
The winner will be announced Sunday.