Federal New Democrats listened eagerly Saturday as members of the team behind U.S. President Barack Obama's historic electoral victory in November shared their winning strategies.
But New Democratic Leader Jack Layton and some delegates attending the annual convention in Halifax played down any link between the party and Democrats south of the border, despite a proposal to drop the word "New" from the NDP's name.
"We're very, very distinct from the Democratic party in the United States," said Mariano Klimowicz, a 51-year-old New Democrat from Windsor, Ont. "We're more socialist-minded, more program-minded."
Mr. Klimowicz, president of the riding association for Windsor West, said the proposal is not about identifying with the Americans.
"People don't understand what the (NDP) stands for when you're just using an acronym," said Mr. Klimowicz, who helped author a resolution to change the party's name.
"It was very important for us to use the word Democrat, Democratic party. I think that people would get more of an idea of the progressive things we do ... across the country."
Delegates were expected to vote on the name change Sunday, but party officials said there might not be enough time to introduce the resolution.
On Saturday, delegates heard from Marshall Ganz, a political organizer with Obama's campaign. Betsy Myers, the campaign's chief operating officer, also spoke.
Mr. Ganz recalled a time when few people believed Mr. Obama would become the next president.
"In January of 2007, nobody thought a black man with a funny name had a ghost of a chance of becoming president of the United States," he said.
An army of organizers and volunteers played a pivotal role in changing that attitude, said Mr. Ganz.
Speaking to reporters, Ms. Myers said Mr. Obama's campaign took advantage of the Internet to spread its message, but the campaign team also used traditional methods.
For example, no event was too small for Mr. Obama to attend, she said.
"Barack Obama worked his tail off," Ms. Myers said. "He never let up."
There were echoes of Mr. Obama's themes during the NDP's election campaign last fall. Party staffers conceded that some ideas had been lifted from the Democrats.
Leigh Borden, an NDP delegate from Newfoundland, said New Democrats can learn from the success of Mr. Obama's campaign without mimicking U.S. Democrats.
"New Democrats are social democrats first and foremost, and I don't think that the Democrats in the United States necessarily are," said Ms. Borden, 31. "It's more about embracing the strategies and the hope."
Mr. Layton was reluctant to say whether his party is trying to tap into Mr. Obama's success and elicit comparisons with the Democrats.
"I sure was excited by Obama's victory, but then again, I was really worried where George Bush was taking the country," Mr. Layton said in a recent interview.
"We don't agree on everything .... But I think it would be fair to say that it's been good for the world that we have a new administration and direction in Washington, and we'd like to see a new direction here in Canada."
Gord Bedient, a delegate from Saskatoon, said New Democrats could learn a few things from the Americans.
"It's how the Obama administration got down to the grassroots level, how they connected," said Mr. Bedient, an electrician. "I think that's what we have to do."
Several delegates said they were pleased with the federal NDP's slow but steady progress, but agreed the party needed to communicate its message more clearly at a grassroots level if it is to make an electoral breakthrough.
Julius Arscott, 26, said the party needs to be more leftist to attract voters.
But the Toronto resident has no illusions of a sweeping success in the next election.
"Do I think Jack Layton is going to be the next prime minister? Probably not."
Pollster Jeff Walker said New Democrats have to forge deeper connections with working-class, low-wage earners outside of the manufacturing sector.
"There's a group, the core group of NDP supporters, that are from those kind of traditional, manufacturing sector (and) other kinds of sectoral organizations," he said.
"But for lots of people in the same socio-economic group, they haven't got a strong affinity with the NDP."
Mr. Walker said taking a different approach could also broaden the NDP's appeal.
"When they get into the realm of talking only about taxation, or talking only about how companies are bad as a kind of default proposition, I think a lot of people turn off to that kind of message."
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