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Justin Trudeau, left, and Marc Garneau exchange views at the Liberal party leadership debate in Halifax on Sunday, March 3, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Justin Trudeau, left, and Marc Garneau exchange views at the Liberal party leadership debate in Halifax on Sunday, March 3, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

JOHN IBBITSON

New voting group support pushing Trudeau over top in Liberal race Add to ...

Justin Trudeau’s campaign team has signed up 150,000 new supporters of the federal Liberals, a show of support that seems to put his bid for leadership beyond the reach of his rivals.

The new supporters category allows people to vote for the next leader without formally joining the party as dues-paying members.

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A senior official on the Trudeau campaign confirmed late Sunday night the number of Trudeau-backing supporters. Sunday was the last day to sign up the new category of leadership voter.

The campaign will release the totals Monday.

While political junkies debate whether Marc Garneau’s attacks are having an effect, or whether Joyce Murray’s proposal for co-operation with the NDP has traction, organizational heft and grassroots enthusiasm have ensured that, barring a spectacular mishap, the MP for Papineau will win the Liberal leadership next month by a wide margin.

The numbers suggest also that Mr. Trudeau has succeeded where virtually every leader or leadership candidate of every national political party has failed: connecting with young and previously disengaged voters.

As of Sunday, Mr. Trudeau had 189,888 followers on Twitter, while Mr. Garneau had a paltry 12,031 and former MP Martha Hall Findlay only 7,600.

Reinforcing the notion that Mr. Trudeau is galvanizing young and previously disaffected voters, The Canadian Press discovered that the words that crop up most in the profiles of Mr. Trudeau’s digital fan base include “love,” “student,” “music” and “writer.” Other candidates’ followers associate with more traditional terms, such as “politics” and “political.”

Even better for the candidate, Mr. Trudeau and his organizers have put in place what one insider described as “a nascent organization right across the country,” buttressed by a network of 10,000 volunteers.

Mr. Trudeau couldn’t possibly ask to be in better shape than he is at this point.

But winning the leadership was never the real challenge. The real challenge is to steal away from the Conservatives those who dictate the outcome of elections: middle-class suburban voters – many of them immigrants – in Greater Toronto, Greater Vancouver, Victoria, the Ottawa region, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge and elsewhere.

Right now, the Conservatives own these voters. Victory for the Liberals depends on persuading them to disown that loyalty.

Mr. Trudeau will also be competing with Thomas Mulcair’s NDP for seats in Quebec. But nobody wins government any more by winning Quebec; its communitarian and redistributive values are outside the English-Canadian mainstream, which is why Quebeckers haven’t voted for a national governing party in almost 30 years.

Winning Quebec means winning opposition. Winning government means winning the suburbs from the Ottawa River to Vancouver Island.

Mr. Trudeau has taken a first step toward doing that by exploiting the new supporter category to achieve exactly what it was designed to do: forge a young, new, committed base of support for the Liberal Party.

But the Liberals remain divided and, in large swathes of the land, moribund. And the Conservatives are skilled, implacable and possessed of a powerful leader with a powerful message.

As if to make the point that he’s ready for that challenge, Mr. Trudeau pre-emptively criticized Marc Garneau Sunday for “a top-down, backroom-heavy, negative campaign.”

That wasn’t just aimed at Mr. Garneau. That was aimed at Stephen Harper, and at anyone who thinks Mr. Trudeau will be yet another Liberal patsy flattened by the Tory juggernaut.

In many ways, Justin Trudeau is where Stephen Harper was in 2002, when he won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. Mr. Trudeau is about to take over a broken party. He has begun the job of forging a smoothly functioning team and an infrastructure that one day will be able to bear the weight of a national campaign.

It took Mr. Harper four years to transform his rough beginnings into an election-winning machine.

How long will it take Justin Trudeau?

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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