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There are almost as many metaphors as Liberal Party delegates crammed into the stairwell of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

It is 3:34 a.m., that indecisive time that tosses and turns between celebration and either restorative rest or hangover.

Someone has set off the alarm -- presumably not a Conservative.

The Liberals who have packed this hotel for the leadership convention are not sure whether they are going down or up.

Out into the cold -- or back to where they want to be.

A few journalists rub their hands together, but hardly from the cold. This story, unlike those who must walk back up 15 flights of stairs, has legs.

Enough of that!

In the bar long before the fire trucks arrived, it was possible to find delegates pulling other alarms. A former candidate from the West says that Stéphane Dion will be "a hard sell" out there. A delegate from Quebec says he might be even harder to sell in his own province.

They say he is unknown and cold and unpopular for his hectoring; they say he is shy and has a good sense of humour and that once people get to know him, they will warm to him.

What they do agree on is that he is a decent, hard-working man; and what they appeared to have agreed on earlier is that he is not Michael Ignatieff and he is not Bob Rae.

On all this, the Liberal Party of Canada decided to bet its future.

The question that matters now, and may matter sooner than expected, is Can he win?

Has the Liberal Party -- despite all those former leaders' grand speeches about social justice and caring programs -- ever been about anything else?

The eight candidates and the three former Liberal prime ministers -- John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin -- all spoke from a stage below a row of photographs of all previous leaders: Mackenzie, Blake, Laurier, King, St. Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau, Turner, Chrétien, Martin. . . .

It is the mark of the incredible success of Liberals -- so often referred to this past weekend as "most successful political party" in the history of democracy -- that all but one of these men served as Prime Minister of Canada.

The one who did not, Edward Blake, therefore often gets tagged the "greatest failure in Canadian history" simply because he lost two elections to Sir John A. Macdonald. Blake possessed, like Stéphane Dion, a brilliant mind. He was so intense he often suffered from migraines and neurasthenia, which was an old word for nervous collapse. His speeches were so long and ponderous other members of Parliament often passed out in their seats.

One day, presumably, a convention will be held in which an 11th photograph will be up there -- with history determining whether Dion was more like Blake than like Laurier or Chrétien, or somewhere in between Martin and Turner.

So very little is known about him. We know, on the other hand, almost everything there is to know about Ignatieff and Rae and are now freed to kill off those brain cells.

Mr. Dion has some humour and, as those who were watching closely when time ran out on his Friday speech will tell you, a temper that may one day prove problematic. He owns a dog named Kyoto that may not be considered so charming in Alberta. His English is not going to serve him well in the West and in rural Ontario; his history as author of the Clarity Act is going to be a problem in Quebec.

All of which raises the simplest question one could possibly ask the most successful political party in history: Why?

Well, why not? Liberals have been eating their old alive since the Calgary convention that chose Chrétien over Martin. It has, in essence, been two parties under one banner for longer than Conservatives and Reform/Alliance were one party under two banners.

Dion is not the establishment, a winner very much made possible by a total outsider, Gerard Kennedy.

He also is running ahead of most of the Liberal pack on an issue in which the people of the country, particularly the young, are soaring well ahead of the politicians: climate control.

Though all eight leadership candidates paid long lip service to the issue, only one, Scott Brison, truly understands its nature.

This is not an issue the likes of which has been seen before. It is cultural more than political -- Al Gore is a far more effective movie star than he ever was a political candidate -- and it is like a fist raised by youth who are beginning, finally, to get through to their parents.

Dion, with his green scarves and T-shirts, has some sense of that -- better than most Liberals, surely.

And if Stéphane Dion can put his face on the issue before Stephen Harper comes up with another unexpected move, then that face just might avoid the ignominy of one day hanging with Edward Blake.

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