06/13/2012 11:01 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Rae bows out of Liberal leadership contest; is Trudeau testing the waters?

OTTAWA - The future of the once-mighty Liberal party became even more unpredictable Wednesday after its most experienced and polished performer scratched himself from the leadership race just hours before the unofficial starting gun was to go off.

Bob Rae's decision to remain on the sidelines — continuing to serve as interim leader until a new, permanent leader is chosen next April — will likely put even more pressure on Justin Trudeau, the only other prospective contender with a high profile, to enter the race.

The 40-year-old Montreal MP and eldest son of Liberal icon Pierre Trudeau has repeatedly ruled out a leadership bid this time, citing the desire to spend time with his young children. But over the past month, his resolve has noticeably wavered as the pressure has mounted on him to change his mind.

Trudeau said Wednesday the pressure has been "enormous." He said Rae's decision to opt out means the party "will have less of a leadership race," but insisted it will have no bearing on whether he finally decides to take the plunge.

"My own (initial) decision ... to not go was independent of what Bob decided to do," Trudeau said.

"Any decision to reverse my prior decision — which is something that I have to do on reflection and in conversation with my family, if indeed I am going to go back on my previously stated 'no' — will be done independently of whether or not Bob is running or not."

Trudeau's youth, telegenic looks and Liberal lineage have made him an unparalleled star in the party's shrunken universe. He is the Liberals' best fundraising draw and polls suggest he's the most popular choice for leader by a large margin.

His victory earlier this year in a much-touted charity boxing match against a Conservative senator was seen by many as testament to his ability to draw attention and perform outside the traditional political box.

However, it remains to be seen whether current polls are meaningful or simply a reflection of Trudeau's name recognition. It also remains to be seen whether Trudeau has the depth or judgment to make a good leader.

He has repeatedly gotten himself in hot water with impulsive comments. He had to apologize recently for a shouted expletive in the House of Commons and had to reaffirm his faith in a united Canada after musing that he might favour Quebec separation if he thought Canadians genuinely shared Prime Minister Stephen Harper's values.

Whatever his deficits, however, Trudeau would be hard to beat. With Rae out of the game, none of the other putative contenders can hold a candle to Trudeau in terms of profile or popularity.

Pickings are slim among the 35 Liberal MPs who survived the 2011 electoral bloodbath. Other than Trudeau, only a handful are considering a leadership bid: Montreal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau, Ottawa MP David McGuinty, Montreal MP Denis Coderre, Vancouver MP Joyce Murray and New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.

Outside of caucus, a host of defeated MPs and failed candidates are testing the waters, including Gerard Kennedy, Martha Hall Findlay, Mark Holland, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, Martin Cauchon, Taleeb Noormohamed, David Bertschi and Deborah Coyne.

Many Liberals have been feverishly dreaming of a star outsider to save the party, which was reduced to a third-party rump in the last election. They've floated names such as Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, none of whom has shown any interest.

Toronto lawyer George Takach is the only so-called outsider to express interest thus far.

Still, Rae's decision to sit out the race could encourage others to enter.

"Mr. Rae's decision means that people who would've supported Mr. Rae are now going to have to decide who they're going to support," said Garneau.

"Perhaps some of those people might decide that Marc Garneau is worth a shot."

Rae's decision came as a surprise to most Liberals, especially since at least one of his organizers, Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis, had already been recruiting supporters among ethnic communities across the country.

Insiders said the 63-year-old wanted to go for it. But faced with mounting criticism from a strong faction of anti-Rae Liberals, his family — which has stood by him through two previous attempts to win the Liberal leadership — ultimately convinced him a third try wasn't worth the grief.

Some Liberals have taken to social media over the past few weeks to criticize Rae's age, his baggage from a single turbulent term as NDP premier of Ontario in the early 1990s, his inability to improve the party's fortunes in the year he's been interim leader and his apparent willingness to renege on a promise not to run for permanent leader when he took on the temporary job.

Rae tried to put his decision in the best possible light.

"I've reached the conclusion that the way in which I can serve my party best is by not running for the permanent leadership and by simply sticking to the task which I agreed to do at the beginning of my (interim) mandate," he told reporters immediately after informing Liberal caucus of his decision.

"It hasn't been an easy decision ... but I think it's best for the party and it's a decision I feel very comfortable with."

He noted that he promised not to run for the permanent job and, although the party's national board was poised Wednesday evening to release him from that pledge, Rae said: "At the end of the day I said, 'You know what? It's too complicated ... Sometimes you do actually want to do things that pass every possible smell test and that's the way I've tried to operate."

Rae's announcement pre-empted the board's decision on whether to release him from his vow not to seek the permanent leadership. However, party brass did narrow the spring timeframe for the leadership convention to next April.

Rae, who is credited by some as single-handedly keeping the Liberal caucus in the parliamentary game for the last year, betrayed some bitterness that he is still deemed unworthy by a faction of Liberals.

"There will be commentary on the age question," he said.

"I just think, who cares? If you're fit and you're ready to go, it doesn't matter and I feel fit and perfectly ready to go."

At another point, he said he'd noticed his decision not to run was winning kudos in social media "from people who've been most happy to stab me in the front, the back, the side, the head and kick me in the rear and then kick me in the stomach."

In a subsequent interview, Rae said Liberals have to stop sniping publicly at one another.

"Within our own party, I think there's too much back-chatter going on and I think people have to kind of focus a little bit more on the things we have to do together as a party rather than some of the negativity."

He agreed with a suggestion that the party is doomed unless it can finally stop the infighting that has plagued it since at least 1984, peaking during the prolonged leadership civil war between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

"Oh yeah, I think there's no question that the party has to get out of this terrible tendency. It's a cultural issue really. It's a culture where people think it's perfectly OK," he said.

"We can create our own success or we can create our own misfortune ... I'm doing my best here and my decision today, I'm doing everything I can to try to reinforce a more positive sense of what can be done."

Although he insisted age is not a factor, Rae did say his decision was partly fuelled by his sense that it's time for a new generation of fresh leadership.

"I may be many things but I'm not a fresh face."

Rae has led the Liberals since the aftermath of the 2011 election, which gave the Conservatives a majority and vaulted the NDP past the Liberals and into official Opposition for the first time.

The disastrous showing cost Michael Ignatieff, Rae's one-time university roommate, his own seat and prompted him to quit as Liberal leader.