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Michael Ignatieff's announcement of his candidacy this morning for the national Liberal leadership will bring him under intense scrutiny from his party to see if he's amassed enough strength for a confident march to victory.

Several senior Liberals said yesterday that the support among party heavyweights gathered by Mr. Ignatieff, 61, the deputy leader, will set the narrative of the six-month campaign path leading to the convention in Vancouver in May.

There will be either the stately progress of a presumptive heir, or a slugfest between Mr. Ignatieff and his old friend and fellow Toronto MP Bob Rae, with the ingenue role of plucky young man in the middle played by New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.

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Toronto MP Gerard Kennedy, the fourth-place candidate in the 2006 leadership convention, and Ottawa MP David McGuinty, brother of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, both announced yesterday they will not be candidates.

They followed on the heels of Montreal MP Denis Coderre, Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay - another 2006 contender - former deputy prime minister John Manley and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna. That leaves only former justice minister Martin Cauchon still on the undecided list, and there was mounting doubt he would enter the race.

In fact, according to one MP who spoke for background, there is little appetite among members of the parliamentary caucus for what he called "also-rans" - the reappearance of the second- and third-tier candidates from the 2006 leadership who are seen as a drain on the party's finances and organization of delegates.

With only three, or at most four, contenders in the race, the door is open for either a first-ballot victory or the third- or fourth-place candidates playing kingmaker in a second round of voting.

Before issuing a statement last night, the Ignatieff campaign team had been ominously quiet over the past few days - what one organizer called "a very fragile time" - as they concentrated on coaxing high-profile and politically skilled party members onto the team.

Among those recently rumoured to have declared their support are David Herle, a top adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin; Mark Marrisen, who ran Stéphane Dion's successful leadership campaign in 2006; Penny Collenette, a key aide to former prime minister Jean Chrétien, and B.C. Senator Larry Campbell, a former supporter of Gerard Kennedy.

Candidates have until February to sign up members; the delegate selection will take place in March. More than 8,000 delegates could attend.

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In the statement last night, Mr. Ignatieff called for party unity.

"We need to unite Liberals and Canadians from coast to coast to coast," he said. "We need to prove to them that Liberals have the right vision and the right plan to make Canada a more prosperous and compassionate country."

He said the party needs to be more open, inclusive and efficient, and to listen to Canadians.

"We must let everyone know that this campaign is really more about them than it is about me," he said.

A much more formal launch is expected later, his advisers say. Although Mr. Rae immediately gave up his foreign affairs critic post when he announced his intention of running, Mr. Ignatieff is not expected to relinquish his title of deputy leader right away.

Liberal insiders say he has widened his tent over the past two years as he has served in the House of Commons, getting to know his colleagues and also appearing in many of their ridings to help them raise funds. This week he was in Montreal drumming up more support.

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Mr. LeBlanc, son of a former governor-general and cabinet minister in the Trudeau government, is also attracting supporters from a variety of camps: two of Paul Martin's most senior advisers, Scott Reid and Tim Murphy; PEI Senator Percy Downe and former PMO communications adviser Steven Hogue from the Chrétien camp; Mark Watton, who had worked on MP Ken Dryden's campaign in 2006; and Janice Nicholson, who was a key strategist in the Kennedy campaign.

In an article in Maclean's magazine this week, Mr. LeBlanc wrote about what he wants to do for the country, arguing that the challenge of rebuilding the Liberal Party "can best be met with a generational change in our leadership." He will be 41 next month. Both Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae are 20 years older.

CORRECTION

David Herle, a political consultant, has not affiliated himself with any of the candidates for the federal Liberal leadership. Incor rect information appeared on Nov. 13.

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