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Layton stakes his biggest bet as Jack of Hearts Add to ...

Or maybe they just like Mr. Layton. Charm is a strange thing in a politician – it's never clear when it will translate into votes and when it's just an attractive waste of breath, the foam on a sports-bar pint. It worked this time thanks to circumstances that won't necessarily be available in four years, and the Tories even have an interest in sustaining it, if it keeps the Liberals from regrouping. Mr. Harper, after all, is still the Prime Minister, and no one thinks he got the job because of his beer-hall chumminess.

However, charm is also a great quality for getting things accomplished in a non-partisan environment with dialogue and understanding. As president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in the 1990s, where he worked with mayors across the country – and cleverly built his national profile – Mr. Layton was celebrated as a non-ideological problem-solver. That may be where he began his shift to what he calls “principled pragmatism.”

Gerry Furney, the mayor of Port McNeill, B.C., recalls a Layton speech from that era: “He came across as a middle-of-the-road person making some good arguments, and by the end of the speech he had the delegates eating out of his hands. I approached him in the foyer afterwards … and asked him if he'd ever thought of joining the Reform Party and running for leadership.”

A committed NDP politician who can come across as solid Reform material – it almost makes you think our ideological differences matter less than our common humanity. But party politics exists to eradicate such fantasies, no matter how civil an Opposition leader tries to be.

Always in character

The leader most Canadians want to have a beer with opts for coffee – a triple-shot Americano decaf – when I finally get to meet him. It's taken a while to land an hour of face time, but here Mr. Layton is, recognizably unassuming in his streamlined bike wear at a small, studenty café near the Art Gallery of Ontario called (aptly enough) Orange Alert.

It's meant to be a chat about life outside the narrow frame of politics. But this is Jack Layton, who can't stop his bike at a light without talking shop to someone, or mention the TV series 24 without observing “it stars Tommy Douglas's grandson, Kiefer.”

While Ms. Chow sits at the next table on her BlackBerry, we talk about the Layton family's music store in Montreal, our shared pleasure in Matt Damon's Bourne action films, the Trekkie costumes he and Ms. Chow once notoriously donned (for an AIDS fundraiser – it turns out they're not really crazed devotees) and their 1988 wedding on the Toronto Islands, which I stumbled across with my children.

“I broke my leg 10 days before, so I had to go in on my cane, just like in the election. I even got the sympathy vote at my own wedding! Olivia came over on a barge, a balloon-infested barge – it was very dramatic. And from there we ended up at a big banquet in Chinatown and then we had a big dance at St. Lawrence Market with Parachute Club. It was a ball.”

I tell him I don't get how anyone could live so completely in public. “Jack is never alone,” one operative tells me, and Mr. Broadbent says: “Some of us want to get away from it all, but not Jack. He loves to socialize.”

Getting away is a distinction that doesn't exist for Mr. Layton. Almost on cue, a young art student who's overheard us comes up to chat about Matt Damon's role in Clint Eastwood's film Hereafter. Mr. Layton has range, and the willingness to deploy it.

But even in the most casual street-corner café, where the admiring Korean owner offers the NDP leader a healthy-looking oatmeal cookie on the house, the language of Ottawa keeps taking over – problem solving, principled pragmatism, robust policies for key economic sectors, core values of fairness and equality, making nice to Bank of Canada chief Mark Carney – “I have no doubt he'd be able to work with us, because we're focused on stable, predictable frameworks.”

I get it. He's on his way to Ottawa. He's a politician. That's his job, his purpose and, more and more, his life.

But when the people stand up and applaud, it's for something else entirely.



John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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