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NDP contenders Peggy Nash and Brian Topp spar during a leadership debate in Montreal on Jan. 25, 2012. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail.)
NDP contenders Peggy Nash and Brian Topp spar during a leadership debate in Montreal on Jan. 25, 2012. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail.)

Succeeding Layton

NDP leadership contenders scramble for top-tier status Add to ...

The NDP leadership race is now entering a phase of one-on-one battles, deal-making and strategic alliances after the sale of membership cards closed over the weekend.

There are more than 115,000 New Democrats eligible to vote on March 24, and the preferential balloting system means the seven remaining candidates are now scrambling to be seen as one of the two main contenders in the race.

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According to officials in the various leadership camps, there are two major power plays at work. First, there is an intense battle between party strategist Brian Topp and Ontario MPs Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash to establish themselves as the best candidate to defend the traditional values and policies of the NDP. The trio traded barbs at the most recent all-candidates debate in Quebec City, with more attacks expected at next Sunday’s debate in Winnipeg. With almost five weeks left in the race, campaigns such as Mr. Topp’s vow that they will become even more “in your face.”

At the same time, there is a move among Quebec MPs to ensure the next leader of the party is fully bilingual, which entails, in their view, a victory by Mr. Topp or NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair.

“It has to be either Brian or Thomas,” Gatineau MP Françoise Boivin said in an interview. “I feel we have better odds of forming the next government with Brian Topp, but I don’t think we’d do badly with Thomas Mulcair.”

The opening in favour of Mr. Mulcair comes as a surprise given Ms. Boivin was the only MP at Mr. Topp’s campaign launch last September and is still highly supportive of the party strategist who has garnered high-level endorsements among party elders. But Ms. Boivin said she is guided by a clear desire to have an NDP leader on March 24 who is fully at ease in Quebec, where 58 of the NDP’s 101 seats are located.

Tarik Brahmi, a Quebec MP who supports Mr. Mulcair, has laid out a similar argument, stating a victory by Mr. Dewar or Ms. Nash, who both have little profile in Quebec, would be the worst possible outcome. Mr. Brahmi went as far as calling such a scenario the “Dion Syndrome,” in reference to the 2006 victory in the Liberal leadership race of underdog candidate Stéphane Dion, who fared badly in the 2008 election.

“I’m behind Thomas Mulcair,” Mr. Brahmi said. “However, I’d prefer if the winner were Brian Topp instead of everyone’s second choice.”

As the issue of bilingualism rises to the forefront of the race, Mr. Dewar has made a key move to inoculate himself against attacks over his weak French-language skills. The Ottawa MP received endorsement last Friday from two Quebec MPs, Hélène Laverdière and Hoang Mai, in the hopes that it will put concerns over his French-speaking abilities to rest.

In an interview, Mr. Dewar said the new supporters are a “show of confidence from two very respected, senior members of our caucus.”

The Dewar campaign is on the offence. Last week, it surprised rivals by releasing an internal poll that put Mr. Dewar in third place, but also listed him as the leading recipient of second-place votes, stating the support could propel him onto the last ballot.

The internal poll also placed Mr. Mulcair at the front of the pack, and senior officials from rival campaigns said the Quebec MP is one of the candidates who is well positioned for the last stretch of the race.

These days, the various campaigns are involved in a high-stakes battle to receive endorsements from two MPs who dropped out of the race, Romeo Saganash and Robert Chisholm. There are also efforts to win an endorsement from Niki Ashton, a young MP from Manitoba who is seen as a clear underdog in the leadership race.

One of the wild cards at this point is Nathan Cullen. While the B.C. MP’s French is still a work in progress, he has performed well at the debates. Mr. Cullen has also attracted attention outside of the party by vowing to push the NDP to engage in formal co-operation talks with the Liberal and Green parties in a bid to defeat Conservative MPs. However, it remains to be seen how long-standing party members view his proposal.

The final membership numbers are scheduled to be released on Tuesday.

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