06/15/2012 12:29 EDT | Updated 08/25/2012 12:01 EDT

Justin Trudeau Leadership Ambitions: Liberal Race Is His To Lose Now


With Bob Rae’s decision not to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau has re-emerged as a likely candidate for the job. But is the Montreal MP right for it?

Many Liberals breathed a sigh of relief when Rae made his announcement Wednesday, avoiding the kind of damaging splits in the party that would have crippled an already damaged brand. As he will remain as interim leader until the leadership race comes to an end in April 2013, Rae will provide solid stewardship of the party in the House of Commons.

With Rae out, Trudeau is the obvious front-runner. That is, if he decides to run. While he adamantly maintained that he was not thinking about it for almost a year, he has suddenly softened his position. Of course, Rae’s candidacy was considered a foregone conclusion so the recent spate in Trudeau speculation may be overblown.

But if he does re-consider, Trudeau could be the kind of galvanizing and exciting leader every party wants. His youthful energy would stand in sharp contrast to Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper. Like Barack Obama, he could bring a whole new generation of voters to the ballot box.

However, Trudeau has a lot less experience to draw upon than either Harper or Mulcair, who were first elected to office in 1993 and 1994, respectively. He is also gaffe-prone and has already provided the Conservative Party with an endless supply of attack-ad material. But his gaffes are usually caused by over enthusiasm, which might appear authentic rather than hapless outside the Ottawa bubble.

If he runs, the race will be far from a coronation. As the front-runner, the focus on him would be immense and a six to eight month campaign would be a major test of his abilities. If he emerges as the winner, it would likely be because he withstood the tests of a gruelling race.

If he makes the kind of mistakes that lose elections, Liberals are unlikely to take the risk, after liveing through Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. This makes it all the more important that, if Trudeau runs, he be opposed by quality candidates.

Certainly, a Trudeau-led Liberal party has the potential to eat into the NDP’s vote and help re-elect the Conservatives. But most Liberals are more concerned with turning their own party around than with steering Mulcair into 24 Sussex.

Some say Trudeau will never win in Quebec after the experiences of the 1980s and early 1990s, but many would have said the same thing about Mulcair, formerly of Alliance Quebec.

Others argue the Trudeau name is toxic to the party’s hopes in the West, but just as the Conservatives have calculated that they can win without Quebec’s 75 (soon to be 78) seats, the Liberals can win without Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s 56 (soon to be 62) seats. Nevertheless, the Liberals cannot count on Trudeau’s messianic appeal to turn everything around – the party still has a lot of work ahead of it.

A Liberal victory in 2015 is highly unlikely no matter who is running the party, but if Trudeau manages to better Ignatieff’s score (a low bar to cross) he has very good chances of sticking around until 2019, when he will be more experienced. If he decides not to run this time, he will have other opportunities going forward. But the party is at an important point in its history, and it will either recover from last year’s debacle or sink further into the abyss, Trudeau or no Trudeau.

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 ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.

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