05/27/2013 12:21 EDT | Updated 07/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba's Liberal party starts leadership contest for fall convention

WINNIPEG - The hunt for a new Manitoba Liberal leader officially began Monday with a prediction that the troubled party may finally be set to bounce back from years in the political wilderness.

Nominations opened for a five-month contest that is to be decided at a convention in Winnipeg on Oct. 26. No candidates filed on the first day, but a party spokesman said he expects four or five people to enter at some point.

"I think there will be some that jump in right at the start and then there will be some that will jump in more towards the end of summer, because they believe that campaigning over the summer is a hard thing to do," said Sam Dixon, a member of the party's board of directors.

Business consultant and author Robert Young has already announced he will run — he's had a website up and running since last summer, but is busy working as the party's vice-president.

"I will make it official in late summer so I can build the internal system of the party," Young wrote in an email.

Bob Axworthy, who ran in a byelection last year and finished a strong second in the Fort Whyte constituency in Winnipeg, said he is still considering whether to run.

The party has also approached Liberal-leaning civic politicians such as Mike Pagtakhan, whose father Rey Pagtakhan was a longtime Liberal member of Parliament. But Pagtakhan does not appear interested.

"It was something I contemplated at one point, but I really enjoy my time here at council," he said.

The Liberals are trying to find a replacement for Jon Gerrard, who announced his resignation after a disastrous 2011 election that saw the party win only one legislature seat and 7.5 per cent of the popular vote — down from two seats and 12 per cent of the vote in 2007.

The low voter support meant the Liberals for the first time did not qualify for a 50 per cent reimbursement of campaign expenses. The party took a year to pay off its $125,000 campaign debt.

With the party's finances in rough shape, there may not be much it can offer to a new leader. Gerrard has said he will stay on as the lone MLA, so a new leader will not have a legislature member's salary — at least not immediately.

The party has suffered other setbacks. Longtime executive director Dennis Trochim was fined $3,500 earlier this month after he admitted to forging signatures on nomination papers for two candidates in the last election.

Liberal press secretary Nancy Chippendale announced her resignation Monday for a job in the private sector.

Still, the Liberals are hopeful their fortunes are about to improve. Recent opinion polls suggest support for the governing New Democrats dropped while Liberal support rose slightly. The government is facing public opposition to its plan to raise the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven per cent on July 1.

"We're on the right kind of trend. It makes people hopeful," Dixon said.

Leadership candidates have until Sept. 26 to enter the race. The entry fee is relatively low at $2,500 and candidates need signatures from at least 100 members from at least six regions of the province.