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Thomas Mulcair at the party's leadership convention in Toronto on March 24 2012. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Thomas Mulcair at the party's leadership convention in Toronto on March 24 2012. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Mulcair's definition of victory takes new meaning as NDP Leader Add to ...

Thomas Mulcair keeps repeating that he has won all three provincial and three federal campaigns he has entered. He can now boast that he has won his first leadership race, beating out his six rivals to become Jack Layton’s successor at the helm of the New Democratic Party.

So forget all the nicknames that the hot-tempered Mr. Mulcair has earned over the years (“Grizzly” being the main one): All he cares about is being seen as a winner.

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As of today, however, the definition of victory for the 56-year-old MP for Outremont, Que., has become harder than ever. In order to keep his election record intact, he has to become Canada’s first NDP prime minister in the 2015 general election.

Mr. Mulcair likes to set a high bar for himself, cultivating a tough-guy image over the course of a political career that goes back to the 1990s. Former staffers and colleagues keep referring to his trenchant approach to interpersonal relationships and his occasional behind-the-scenes outbursts.

As Mr. Mulcair entered the NDP leadership race last fall, he said he had only one goal.

“It’ll be to win, regardless of who is on the other side,” he said.

The victory-at-all-costs attitude doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have followed Mr. Mulcair’s career in Quebec City from 1994 until he quit the Jean Charest cabinet in a huff in 2006 over a planned real-estate development in a provincial park. A strong federalist, Mr. Mulcair fondly remembers his time on the opposition benches at the National Assembly when he faced off against the Parti Québécois government until it was replaced in 2003 by his provincial Liberals.

Mr. Mulcair always seems in a mood to fight. Throughout his time in politics, he has attracted lawsuits (including one related to the use of a crude anatomical term as he wished a prison term against one of his adversaries), gone against his own Quebec Liberals on environmental matters, and broken a series of electoral barriers for the NDP in Quebec as the MP for Outremont.

Mr. Mulcair frequently resorts to boxing metaphors to explain his method.

“I hit to hurt,” Mr. Mulcair once said of favorite tactic against the PQ.

Former NDP staffer Ian Capstick said that the party has been shaken up by Mr. Mulcair’s aggressiveness, which helps explain the resistance that he has faced from some quarters during the leadership contest.

“At times, it is driven by politics and not policy, and that rubs New Democrats the wrong way,” Mr. Capstick said. “They are not used to power plays, they are not used to positioning, and they are not used to pugilism at all.”

There is no doubt that Mr. Mulcair’s transition from the Quebec Liberal to the NDP in 2007 took many people by surprise. But no one could accuse him of being opportunistic: The New Democrats had little presence in Quebec at the time, and the consensus was that Mr. Mulcair was committing political suicide by joining Mr. Layton’s team in order to run in the traditional Liberal fortress of Outremont.

Still, some of his former staffers said that in his constituency work, Mr. Mulcair always showed a commitment to the common-day concerns of people, workers and families, as he will now do as NDP Leader.

“Going to the NDP was a natural evolution for him,” said Jocelyne Roch, who worked with Mr. Mulcair for more than a decade in his riding north of Montreal.

In the NDP leadership race, Mr. Mulcair hoped to present himself as the best candidate to “bring the party up to the next level.” This was widely seen in the party as a desire to push the NDP closer to the political centre in the hopes of winning government in 2015. The decision pitted him against senior members of the NDP, as former NPD leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow endorsed long-time strategist Brian Topp, who finished second in the leadership race.

Mr. Mulcair seemed to relish the thought of facing off against the party’s hierarchy.

“I don’t even shy away from a fight if somebody wants to tie one arm behind my back,” he said.

His biggest immediate challenge will be to foster unity in the NDP. He did have the most caucus support in the NDP, but he did not win the support of many party veterans, who will be seeking a clear olive branch from him in coming days.

Mr. Mulcair has tried to ease concerns toward the end of the race, stating that he has run a positive campaign and that all New Democrat officials will be able to stay employed within the party.

Mr. Mulcair can now look forward to facing off on Monday against Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons. Whether he asks questions about the economy or recent political controversies, Mr. Mulcair will be getting ready for the next election. Throughout the leadership campaign, he vowed to modernize the NDP and ensure that the party builds on last year’s breakthrough in Quebec to win seats in Ontario and the West.

“The Orange Wave petered out in ridings that were awash in a sea of blue and red lawn signs,” Mr. Mulcair said this week. “We can’t let that happen again. We can’t let that happen in any region of the country.”

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