OTTAWA - The federal Liberal leadership race is getting crowded at the starting gate but a stiff entry fee may yet winnow the field.
The party is to officially fire the starting gun Wednesday.
That same day, former Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay — who just finished paying off her debt from a 2006 bid for the party's leadership — is scheduled to formally launch her second attempt at the top job.
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She's chosen to announce her candidacy in Calgary, politically toxic territory for the Liberals for more than four decades, in a bid to demonstrate a commitment to rebuilding the party into a national movement.
And this time she's recruited the help of Stephen Carter, an old hand at masterminding come-from-behind victories. He managed Naheed Nenshi's successful mayoral campaign in Calgary and Alberta Premier Alison Redford's most recent provincial election campaign.
Retired Canadian Forces Lt.-Col. Karen McCrimmon, who ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in an Ottawa-area riding in 2011, is expected to take the plunge later Wednesday.
Vancouver MP Joyce Murray is expected to follow suit next week, followed closely by Toronto lawyer George Takach.
Montreal MP Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, is widely expected to join the race shortly as well.
They will join Montreal MP Justin Trudeau, the prohibitive favourite who jumped into the race six weeks ago and is widely thought to have an insurmountable head start.
A clutch of lesser known contenders also took the plunge early, including Toronto lawyer and public policy consultant Deborah Coyne, mother of Trudeau's half sister, Vancouver Crown prosecutor Alex Burton, Ottawa lawyer David Bertschi, Ontario government economist Jonathan Mousley and David Merner, former president of the party's British Columbia wing.
Although the early birds have been criss-crossing the country, delivering speeches, meeting grassroots Liberals, launching websites and issuing email blasts, none can become an official contender until Wednesday and then only after paying an entry fee that turns out to be even steeper than previously thought.
The party has imposed a $75,000 fee for entering the contest — to be paid in three instalments, the first due upon registration as a candidate, the last due by mid-January.
However, since the party has also imposed a tithe of 10 per cent on every dollar raised by leadership contenders, each candidate essentially has to come up with $82,500 in order to cover the entry fee.
"Funding will pose a tough challenge for many candidates, myself included," Mousley conceded in a frank email blast earlier this month, appealing for donations.
There is also a possibility that the party could yet impose a nominal fee on supporters before allowing them to vote for the next leader.
The supporter category was created earlier this year and was intended to give all comers — not just those willing to pay a membership fee — a voice in choosing the party's next leader. Charging them a fee to vote would appear to defeat the whole purpose and is, according to insiders, unlikely to be adopted by the party's board.
However, several leadership camps support the idea, including that of former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon. Indeed, insiders say Cauchon is unlikely to run unless a voting fee or some other mechanism is found to ensure the race is more than a beauty contest determined by supporters who may have only a fleeting attachment to the party.
Other camps believe a voting fee, requiring the use of a credit card to verify supporters' addresses, could be one way to prevent voting fraud.
The results are to be weighted to give each riding equal clout, giving voters in ridings with few Liberals more heft than those in ridings with thousands of members. Without some way to verify addresses, Liberals are concerned supporters could distort the outcome by professing to reside in ridings where there are few Liberals.
During a conference call Monday, insiders said representatives of the various leadership camps were assured the party has come up with measures to verify the identity and addresses of supporters.
However, party officials refused to reveal the precise nature of those measures so as to avoid giving anyone ideas about how to get around them.