OTTAWA - It's not on the official agenda of their convention, but Liberals are informally abuzz with speculation about their usual favourite topic: leadership.
On Friday night, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty set tongues wagging with a speech describing how he managed to take his province's Liberal party from perpetual loser to three-time winner.
He left many delegates hoping he could be persuaded to do the same for the federal party, which was reduced to third party status with only 34 seats in last May's election.
On Saturday, it was the premier's brother, Ottawa MP David McGuinty, who provided grist for the leadership mill, declaring his own potential interest in the job and thereby effectively ruling out his more famous sibling.
"I have an obligation to examine what is the best way to contribute, I really do," David told reporters after ambling into the media room at the convention, purportedly to inquire if reporters were being adequately "watered and fed."
"This is not news," he insisted. "People knew that I considered running last time."
As for the premier, who has repeatedly ruled out jumping to the federal arena, David said: "I think he's spoken really clearly on that issue and he's been pretty categorical. He's got a big job ahead of him (as premier of a minority government). He knows it and he's focusing on it."
Marc Garneau, the Liberal House leader, has also mused about a potential run.
And delegates were also buzzing about the fact that former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon hosted a hospitality suite at the convention. To some, this was deemed a sure sign that Cauchon has his eye on an eventual leadership run, even though he was foiled last May in his bid to stage a comeback in his old Montreal riding.
But the most persistent buzz involves Bob Rae, the party's current interim leader. Virtually every day over the past week, Rae has been asked by reporters if he intends to run for the job permanently, despite having promised not to do so as a condition of accepting the interim post.
Rae has fuelled speculation by refusing to categorically rule it out. He has repeatedly said it's up to the party's national executive to decide whether to lift the ban on him contesting the permanent leadership and, unless and until that happens, he says he'll abide by the rules and do his job as interim leader.
With no leadership contest in the offing until the spring of 2013, there is no pressing need for the executive — or Rae — to clarify the situation any time soon.
David McGuinty, who has previously said Rae should make his intentions clear and give up the interim leadership if he intends to run, was more circumspect Saturday.
"Bob Rae is a phenomenal talent. He's very good for Canada, very good for our party," he said, adding that he's sure Rae will act "with good faith and goodwill," whatever and whenever he decides.
"(The timing) is really up to Bob. I'm taking the time I need to meet with all kinds of people here, talk to folks ... You just have to take the time to reflect seriously."
Many pundits have predicted that Rae, a polished and effective performer, will be handed the permanent leadership, without a challenge. But McGuinty said another coronation wouldn't be in the party's best interests.
"Whether Bob runs or not, I think we need to have a good, open race. I think Canadians want that."
The party's last leader, Michael Ignatieff, was chosen without a single ballot being cast. McGuinty said that fostered a perception that Ignatieff "didn't earn the leadership fair and square."
McGuinty's musings were ironic, coming just hours after his brother urged Liberals to get over their obsession with leadership and focus on the less glamorous grunt work that needs to be done to rebuild the party.
"Choosing a new leader is no quick fix. I am living proof of that," Dalton McGuinty told the convention on Friday evening, reminding delegates that it took him seven years and one election loss to finally win power.
"There are no saviours. There are no overnight successes. There is only hard work. Lots of it."
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