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

Liberals claim supporter sign-ups ‘exceeded expectations,’ but won’t release numbers yet Add to ...

The federal Liberal party is holding off on releasing the head count of supporters signed up for next month’s leadership vote, saying it needs to “scrub” the list before releasing a firm number later this week. But party president Mike Crawley is claiming the exercise “exceeded expectations” following confirmation from the camp of Justin Trudeau that – as of Sunday night’s cut-off – the leadership front-runner alone had signed up 150,000 supporters.

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None of the other remaining seven leadership camps released sign-up numbers Monday, but Trudeau’s total is more than the 131,000 party members that were eligible to vote in last spring’s NDP leadership convention.

For third-place Liberals in the House of Commons, good news has been tough to come by for several years.

Crawley took to Twitter on Monday to claim a “huge diverse pre-cutoff surge of supporters” that “exceeded expectations.”

A robust base of support would be a boon – both in public perception and, more critically, in fundraising – as the Liberals start rebuilding again for a federal election in 2015.

But it is far too early for the party to celebrate.

Liberals are courting a new class of non-paying supporters, as opposed to dues-paying party members, in an effort to broaden their appeal. Some critics question just how attached the supporter class will be to the party.

Supporters and party members alike must all still register if they want a vote on the April 14 leadership decision.

“We have to convert these supporters over to be registered voters,” said party spokeswoman Sarah Bain. “That’s the important number.”

Registration will also provide the Liberal party with critically important information for future contacts, policy pitches and funding appeals.

The federal Conservatives, in particular, have perfected this kind of voter outreach through their Constituent Information Management System, or CIMS – a repository of detailed supporter information that allows the party to tailor messages and target fundraising.

With the Harper government phasing out the per-vote subsidy – which shared a pool of about $23-million annually among the major parties, based on their vote share in the last election – all parties are becoming dependent on direct fundraising appeals.

This makes identifying and signing up supporters a party’s lifeblood, not just an exercise in winning a leadership contest.

Still, the rival Liberal leadership camps did not appear to be celebrating Trudeau’s success Monday.

Joyce Murray, the only candidate running on a platform of co-operation with the NDP to end vote-splitting, pointed out that supporters can vote for whomever they choose, regardless of who brought them aboard.

“There’s no way of verifying that,” Murray said of Trudeau’s claim to have garnered 150,000 supporters.

“Over the next five weeks, we’ll all be speaking to our supporters, and we’ll see on April 14th. That’s the only day that counts.”

Both Marc Garneau’s and Martha Hall Findlay’s campaigns released statements Monday to the effect that it ain’t over til it’s over.

“The Garneau campaign will not be releasing specific numbers because the only number that counts will be the number announced April 14, 2013,” said spokeswoman Anne Dawson.

Hall Findlay’s campaign released an endorsement letter from a former Canadian worker on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential nomination.

Recalling the early dominance of Hillary Clinton, Jared A. Walker opined that “in a democracy nothing is inevitable.... When it comes to politics, we should never be content with coronations and cakewalks.”

Whatever the final number of supporters and party members the Liberals announce later this week, all will still need to register, and then cast a ballot by phone or online the week of April 6-14.

The three-stage process is sure to take a big bite out of the gaudy sign-up totals.

Last May, New Democrats had signed up about 131,000 party members who needed only to go online to vote for the new leader – no registration required – yet still managed just 50 per cent turnout.

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