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NDP leader Tom Mulcair will sit down with the NDP caucus next week in Saskatoon. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP leader Tom Mulcair will sit down with the NDP caucus next week in Saskatoon. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ahead of caucus meeting, Mulcair sets sights on the long game Add to ...

As he sits down with the NDP caucus next week in Saskatoon to prepare for the fall session of Parliament, Thomas Mulcair will no doubt remind his MPs of the warning he issued at the same meeting last year: Popularity is ephemeral and theirs will fluctuate in the lengthy period leading up to the next election.

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With the success of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and the Tory base’s steady support for the party in the face of political difficulties, Mr. Mulcair finds himself the man in the middle. He brought the NDP there by choice, logging more than 64,000 kilometres this summer to sell his brand of “good, competent public administration.” But now he must find a way to get some traction.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Mulcair said Canadians are paying attention to the NDP, whether or not that is reflected in public opinion surveys or the media.

“This is a 15-round match that we are preparing for. It’s not a three-round fight,” Mr. Mulcair said. “This summer was substantive, it was ground-level, it was cross-country.”

The aim is to convince Canadians that New Democrats are action oriented. “The Liberals, who were in power for 13 years with majority governments, did nothing on daycare, did nothing on aboriginal affairs,” Mr. Mulcair said. “Interestingly enough, they talked about the legalization of marijuana but they never got around to that either. We will get to issues such as universal daycare in Canada because we know how to get it done and we believe it’s not only good socially, it’s good economically.”

But the success Mr. Trudeau has had in garnering media attention, and the fact that his party has pushed Conservative support below 30 per cent, is causing some New Democrats to ask whether Mr. Mulcair is on the right track. The NDP, which surprised its own faithful in 2011 by vaulting into the benches of the Official Opposition, is languishing below 25 per cent in the polls, well behind the governing Conservatives and even further behind the Liberals.

They won’t say it on the record – no New Democrat wants to openly express doubt. But privately they question whether Mr. Mulcair has a good team around him, whether he is selling the NDP message with enough gusto, whether he has managed to adequately define himself. And they worry that the NDP bubble may have burst with the death of former leader Jack Layton whose personal popularity propelled the party to second place for the first time in its history.

Some things have gone very well for the New Democrats since Mr. Mulcair took the helm a year and a half ago. The many young, neophyte MPs have proved remarkably competent. Riding associations are being formed in places – mostly in Quebec – where the party had no presence before the 2011 election. Fundraising is going well.

But it’s easy to overlook all that when the NDP is straggling in the public opinion surveys – even if it is down just six points from the last election – and when Mr. Trudeau is getting significantly better marks in leadership polls than Mr. Mulcair.

“Mulcair’s weakest score relates to his vision for Canada,” said Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research. Which means, said Mr. Nanos, that “Thomas Mulcair has to take every opportunity to describe what a Thomas Mulcair government would be like and how Canada would be different if he was prime minister.”

That is, in fact, what Mr. Mulcair has been trying to do. Canadians angered about the fiscal follies of unelected senators have heard that frustration expressed by Mr. Mulcair in cities and towns across the country.

He took what he calls a “listening tour” of aboriginal communities. “It is a file,” he said, “that Liberal government after Liberal government, Conservative government after Conservative government, has not taken care of, has just forgotten.”

He went to France and met with that country’s prime minister, a visit arranged in part to demonstrate his capabilities on the international front. But most of his travels, including the France trip, earned little national media coverage. When reporters did want to hear from Mr. Mulcair this summer, it was to get his opinion about Mr. Trudeau’s call for legalizing marijuana.

Some New Democrats blame Mr. Mulcair’s staff for the fact that the NDP seems to be chasing the third party. “The NDP hasn’t taken advantage of being three times the Liberals’ size and being the Official Opposition,” said one party veteran. And the amount of coverage being given to Mr. Trudeau, he said, “absolutely should strike fear into the hearts of New Democrats.”

Others say the calm and deliberate approach adopted by their leader will pay off in the end. Joe Cressy, a member of the NDP federal council, said substance will ultimately trump celebrity.

“If you were to ask people in research, what do you think of Tom Mulcair, you would probably hear ‘tough,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘looks like a prime minister,’” Mr. Cressy said. “That’s far more valuable in 2013 than ‘Oh, he’s kind of interesting, a little sexy.’”

Layton stalwart Brad Lavigne, who quit the Opposition Leader’s Office when Mr. Mulcair took over the party, points out that the Liberals have surged every time they they have elected a new leader, then they have taken a steep dive.

“Canadians do not wake up every day and look at media coverage and decide on the basis of that alone how they are going to vote in two years’ time,” Mr. Lavigne said. “They are going to be deciding on the basis of who do they want to lead, who is competent and who has the leadership skills to replace Stephen Harper as prime minister.”

Saskatchewan was chosen as the site of next week’s caucus meeting because the redistribution of riding boundaries gives the NDP hope that gains are possible in that province. And Mr. Mulcair says he is convinced that Mr. Harper’s time is running out.

All over Canada, he said, “people are putting their arm on my shoulder and just saying, ‘When are you going to get rid of him?’”

But with the NDP trailing significantly, there is reason to question whether the party can even hold onto the new ridings it won in 2011 in Quebec and Ontario.

Will Canadians eager for change be turning to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals?

Mr. Mulcair said he is convinced his hard work will triumph.

“We know exactly what we have to do before the next campaign,” he said, “and we are just going to keep doing it.”

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