If Dalton McGuinty has truly not decided whether to join the race for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, he has floated a massive trial balloon that will keep Liberals guessing.
By coyly replying “I have no plans” but not ruling out a federal bid, the Ontario Premier has left wide open the possibility that he will give chase to Justin Trudeau when he steps out of his office at Queen’s Park for the final time.
People who know Mr. McGuinty well said Tuesday they don’t believe he has any intention of running federally.
Some said he has too much baggage – too long a record on issues like cancelled power plants and the mismanagement of Ontario’s air ambulance service – to become the party’s candidate for prime minister. One recent poll suggests his popularity has slipped significantly in the past year and a half. Another put him third last in a ranking of all provincial premiers.
But others point to the well-oiled McGuinty political machine, spearheaded by the Premier’s brother Brendan, his former campaign director Don Guy, and his former chief of staff Chris Morley.
Gerald Butts, the Premier’s long-time confidante, quit as head of the World Wildlife Fund on Tuesday, the day after Mr. McGuinty announced his own resignation. He has been a solid supporter of Mr. Trudeau, his childhood friend, and sources in the Trudeau camp said he would be joining that campaign full time.
But Mr. McGuinty does not need Mr. Butts to play a very good ground game in a race for federal leader.
As the former premier of the province with the greatest number of Liberal supporters, Mr. McGuinty “would have to be taken as a serious contender inside the Liberal family,” said Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research. “And even if he decides not to be a contender, he could be a significant force in shaping who the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada will be.”
Mr. Nanos has registered an uptick in support for the Liberals since Mr. Trudeau announced his candidacy. Now pollsters will be likely be putting Mr. McGuinty’s name into the mix and measuring the results – which could make his decision easier.
With or without him in the federal race, Mr. Nanos said the campaign to replace Mr. McGuinty as leader of the Ontario Liberals could sap resources from an already depleted federal party. At the same time, provincial Liberals in Quebec are searching for a successor to Jean Charest.
“You are going to have a national leadership plus provincial leaderships in the two most populous provinces that have a significant provincial Liberal organizations,” said Mr. Nanos. “The reality is that there is only a limited pool of money and people. Someone will suffer. We don’t know who.”
Liberals, of course, do not agree.
Bob Rae, the interim Leader of the party, said he did not believe the fact that multiple leadership races will be conducted at the same time would mean less money to go around.
"Actually giving is never a 'zero sum' game, either in charities or politics," Mr. Rae said in an e-mail on Wednesday. "Once people start giving, they're actually more likely to give to both."
One party strategist who has worked on both provincial and federal campaigns pointed out that the existing tax structure means supporters can give money to candidates at the federal and the provincial level and get rebates for both donations.
And because there is a massive overlap in memberships between the federal and provincial parties in Ontario which does not exist elsewhere in the country, he said, the campaigns could feed off each other by drawing in new members and training workers.
Former Liberal MP Don Boudria is a supporter of Mr. Trudeau who said he does not believe Mr. McGuinty, a man he has know for many years, will run federally.
“But would he be an interesting addition to the Liberal leadership race? Of course he would,” said Mr. Boudria who does not fear the prospect of multiple races. He said he suspects the provincial Liberals will move much more quickly than the federal party to find a new leader so the two contests will not coincide.
And as it is all playing out, said Mr. Boudria, “just the momentum and the activity it’s creating around our party, there is definitely value in that for us Liberals.”
With a report from Daniel Leblanc