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Quick, now: What does the jumbled Liberal Party leadership race have in common with an obscure 19th-century English novel?

The answer: "a dark horse," a phrase thought to have been first used in print in The Young Duke, published in 1831.

The germane sentence reads: "A dark horse, which had never been thought of, rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph." Bonus points if you identified its author, a 27-year-old lawyer who, something of a dark horse himself, would become prime minister of England -- Benjamin Disraeli.

The dark horse in the Liberals' current grand national steeplechase is easy to spot. More than halfway toward the finish line -- the leadership convention in Montreal -- Gerard Kennedy is raring to go, tucked in behind Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion.

But while much of the news media have been focused on the front-runners, Mr. Kennedy has been galloping in their slipstream, signing up thousands of new party members and raising just north of $400,000.

Four weeks ago, a very senior Liberal senator, officially unaffiliated, hosted a salon for Mr. Kennedy in his Montreal home. A private affair, no reporters, just a few well-placed friends to meet the candidate, take his pulse and hear him talk about renewal, what the Liberal Party needs to do to regain the confidence of Canadian voters; the sort of event one might imagine being arranged for a young Pierre Elliott Trudeau, circa 1967.

Clearly, he has some distance to go. A survey conducted by the Strategic Counsel last week for The Globe and Mail and CTV shows Mr. Kennedy tied for fourth place with Ken Dryden, each with the support of 9 per cent of Liberal Party members. Several blogger surveys predict Mr. Kennedy will do better.

Much will depend on the convention's mood. Less sullied and more youthful than his better-known rivals, Mr. Kennedy -- neither a Martinite nor a Chrétienite -- bears no scars from the party's internecine wars and might thus be regarded as a leader who can heal the rifts.

More importantly, although 81 per cent of Liberals told the Strategic Counsel they believe the party can form the next government, delegates will, in fact, be electing a new opposition leader, for potentially five years. By that time, Messrs. Ignatieff and Rae, with all their liabilities, would be into their mid-60s -- not an age, perhaps, to galvanize the emerging generation. Mr. Kennedy would be just 51, seasoned federally and, leaning slightly left, a nightmare for Jack Layton's NDP.

"Kennedy's what I call the sleeper," pollster Allan Gregg said. "He doesn't carry the same baggage as some of the others, although he does carry some -- notably, almost no support in Quebec. But it's early days yet. And oftentimes, to find the winner, you have to look not at the front-runner or even the guy in second, but the third choice."

Political consultant John Duffy, a principal at Toronto's Strategy Corp. and officially neutral, agrees. "Kennedy is well positioned to exploit the negatives of the other name candidates. He's definitely one to watch, with a lot of late-ballot potential. The question is: Will he be able to withstand the scrutiny of being the one to watch?"

A summer day in Toronto. At the north end of High Park, the city's Ukrainian community gathers for its 10th annual parade and festival: marching bands, costumed dancers, long-coated, mustachioed Cossacks and bins full of perogies.

Gerard Kennedy trades his sport jacket for a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt and strides casually along Bloor Street, waving and shaking hands. He has genuine standing here; the parade route traverses part of the provincial riding (Parkdale-High Park) that he represented until stepping down to seek the federal leadership. His mother, Caroline Shemanski, descends from a Ukrainian family that arrived in Canada in 1891. But this is strictly a goodwill appearance, not a moment for overt politicking.

Later, from a grandstand, two dozen speakers, mostly local politicians, assemble to make empty speeches to an appreciative, geriatric crowd, an exercise in mutual validation. Among them, only Mr. Kennedy actually seizes the occasion to try to communicate an idea.

"My generation has been the complacent one," he says. "We had the education and the health care and the economic opportunities, thanks to the sacrifices made by your generation. And now we need to make sure that the next generation has the same chances."

Does any of this register with the audience? It seems unlikely. The perogies are a higher priority. But he makes an effort all the same, an effort no one else makes.It isn't entirely true that Gerard Michael Kennedy has no negatives. Although he grew up in small-town The Pas, Man., (read: solid Western roots) ran food banks in Edmonton and Toronto (big heart for social justice), was an MPP in Queen's Park for a decade (political experience) and, until throwing his hat in the leadership ring in April, was education minister for three years in Dalton McGuinty's Ontario government (a key portfolio, by all accounts deftly handled), his regional resonance is still suspect. He's a provincial cabinet minister trying to leap to the national stage. The historical precedents aren't encouraging; there aren't any.

All of that may matter less than his French, which has drawn decidedly mixed reviews. Although he's being tutored and working hard at it, and speaks French at home with his wife, Jeanette Arsenault-Kennedy, his proficiency, Mr. Duffy insists, is not what it needs to be.

"If I were him," Mr. Duffy said, "I'd be working on the French every day, every second. It's that important."

Meanwhile, almost everyone who engages with Mr. Kennedy seems to come away impressed: with his intelligence, his command of whatever dossier is in front of him, his commitment to constructive change, his prodigious work ethic and his essential rootedness. Oh yes, and charisma, a word much debased, but applicable to Mr. Kennedy. He may look like a milky chartered accountant, and you're unlikely to ever see him pirouette with a rose in his teeth, but put him in front of a crowd to talk about poverty or education or gender wage equity and the life force emerges, palpably.

"Incredibly smart," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, an Ontario parents' organization involved in school reform. "He knew the issues up and down, understood the complexity of public education. And he was really passionate about it. He didn't just talk the talk."

"He did his homework," said Rick Johnston, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, who met with Mr. Kennedy regularly. "His attitude was, 'I've read the reports. Here's what I think. Now show me I'm wrong.' "

The approach, Mr. Johnston said, did not always endear him to his senior civil servants. "But he's persuasive. I saw him address a roomful of trustees that was ready to lynch him and, after 40 minutes, they gave him a standing ovation."

Michael Fullan, senior policy adviser to the Premier and chief architect of Ontario's blueprint for raising levels of numeracy and literacy, said he was "amazed" to find at their first meeting that the minister knew more about the proposal than his own officials. Mr. Kennedy quickly became its driver.

In Mr. Fullan's judgment, four things made Mr. Kennedy effective: concern for social justice, his sheer, intellectual prowess, an obsession with results, and indefatigable energy. "He must have worked 20 hours a day. I'm sure it made him annoying to some staffers. Too much micromanagement. Too many expectations. He didn't berate anyone, but he was demanding. He put enormous pressure on people, because he was driven that way. I've worked with policy makers for 25 years. Most just want to get it on the books, not worry about implementation. Gerard's take was, 'How will this translate into results? Where are the results?' "

Mr. Kennedy's single greatest coup as minister is said to be the four-year collective agreements reached between 122 school districts and 72 unions. The previous decade had been torn by bitter labour strife, a miasma of grievances and work stoppages that poisoned the education environment. Until there was labour peace and stability, he argued, nothing else could happen. Still, few thought a four-year contract, which guaranteed labour peace in exchange for a staggered 10.5-per-cent wage increase, was a realistic goal.

"When I first raised it," he recalled, " they literally laughed at me."

"Gerard did something nobody else could have done," Mr. Fullan said. "And technically he had no legal right, since he wasn't a party to the agreements. But he framed the ground rules and rode herd on everyone. He's resilient. He's persistent, but has flexibility. If he can't do it one way, he'll do it another. So he's very ambitious, but ambitious for the right reasons. On the one hand, he's a pure, ambitious politician, and at the same time 100 per cent genuine and rock solid on integrity."

Gerard Kennedy and Jeanette Arsenault met at a nightclub in Edmonton in 1981. They were out with another couple. Ms. Arsenault-Kennedy, an Acadian francophone from Prince Edward Island, isn't sure what the other couple talked about, but Mr. Kennedy, she remembers, talked politics.

"That's all we talked about, the entire night." Her first impression? "This is one ambitious and motivated guy. . . Maybe that's what attracted me. He is solid. He knows what he wants." In fact, not long after they started dating, Mr. Kennedy thought it best to put Ms. Arsenault-Kennedy on notice: "You know," he told his future wife, "one day, I'm going to go into politics. You know that." He was 22.

They dated for nine years. When he finally proposed marriage, "at first I didn't believe him," laughed Ms. Arsenault-Kennedy. "It was like -- did I hear that right?"

Politics had been part of his world from the start, a staple of conversation around the Kennedy kitchen table in The Pas, 630 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. "There was lots of voluble debate. In our house," Mr. Kennedy said. "Trivial Pursuit was a contact sport."

His father Jack, owner of a gas franchise for the region, was Mr. Community; active in Kiwanis and Knights of Columbus, a school trustee, then mayor and later a Liberal candidate in the 1984 federal election.

Gerard, the second of six children, was born with a clubbed left foot, a handicap he refused to let impede him. "My mother actually made me believe that the reason I had a specially built shoe was that the other kids just hadn't got theirs yet," he said. "I could skate before I could properly walk."

A friend of his father's built a reinforced skate and the young Kennedy, in the dogged manner that would come to mark him, "just kept at it and kept at it." At 14, with his older brother Ed, he won a hockey scholarship to Winnipeg's private St. John's-Ravenscourt school. Later, he played at the Junior A level, a rugged defenceman known for his ability to deliver hip checks. In college, he recalled, not without a glint of pride, he put two guys through the glass that way. He still plays in a Queen's Park pick-up league.

"What Gerard may have lacked in athleticism," said Ed, now CEO of the Winnipeg-based North West Company, "he made up for with sheer tenacity. He wasn't reckless on the ice, but he was determined and fearless. He'd immerse himself in the moment and I think it connects to his life. He's purpose-driven. It's hardwired into him."

After high school, Mr. Kennedy spent a year at Trent University but, when its hockey program was scuttled, transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. It was the early 1980s, a recession had set in, and the provincial Tories had cut welfare payments. A friend recruited him to volunteer at a local food bank and within months, he had suspended his studies and was running it.

"I was probably as abstract as any university student," Mr. Kennedy said, "and I was angered by what I saw -- average people with difficult situations and nowhere to run, quite at variance with the country I'd been led to be believed existed."

He intended to return in six months to complete the degree, but never did; addressing the poverty issue seemed a higher calling. He's proud of his achievements there. "We got the [Peter]Lougheed government to restore welfare cuts, a day before we released a report showing how their policies were driving clients to the food bank. We created an awareness of a problem that just was not there before."

"I was immediately impressed with him," recalled Jack Harmer, who befriended Mr. Kennedy in Edmonton and has remained a confidante (Mr. Harmer spoke at the Kennedy-Arsenault wedding in 1991 in Wellington, PEI -- Jeanette's largely francophone home town -- and predicted they'd one day live at 24 Sussex Drive). "He had immense leadership capabilities. He seemed able to do everything. In the course of a day, he'd run budgets, do research, give a speech, negotiate with food companies, handle media interviews and then be out on the floor at midnight filling bags of food that he would personally deliver."

In 1985, Terry Sweeney, then a Loblaws technology executive and now a consultant to Big Pharma, tried to recruit Mr. Kennedy to run Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank.

"My first impression was that he was too young and I was wasting my time," Mr. Sweeney recalled. "But while I was waiting to see him, he was with a young couple and I eavesdropped. And he was so detailed in his questions. He listened so well and was very creative in looking for solutions. He gave them his complete attention. We ended up talking all night long. It took me a year to get him here."

Finally moving to Toronto with Ms. Arsenault-Kennedy, a daycare supervisor, Mr. Kennedy's first assignment was a fall food drive. "We were expecting to collect 50,000 pounds," Mr. Sweeney said. "We got almost a million. He just generated a ton of media. The thing is, he had a very clear vision. He saw food banks as interim measures that could be used as a platform to talk about poverty in Canada."

During his 10 years at Daily Bread, Mr. Kennedy distributed $30-million in food annually and put hunger in Canada on the front page. It did not hurt that he was bright, articulate and photogenic or that he refused to take a dollar of government money.

"That wasn't ideological," he insisted. "It was practical. It was a waste of time. You can't just throw money at things. The public is not wrong in thinking there is a disconnect between what they're told and what gets delivered."

Sue Cox, Mr. Kennedy's No. 2 for eight years in Toronto, said he was "very good at approaching things from a different perspective. The whole volunteer component -- that you didn't need money -- but could ask for goods and services without offering tax receipts, that was Gerard. He truly believed you could appeal to people's better instincts. Sometimes his faith was vindicated, sometimes it wasn't."

He worked relentlessly. "People would call at all hours of the night because they knew he'd be there."

Ms. Arsenault-Kennedy said she has long been reconciled to her husband's extended hours. "Gerard is who he is. . . I'm not going to tell him what he can do and what he can't do."

Still, she said, it's better now that they have a family: seven-year-old Théria and three-year-old John-Julien. "Gerard works hard at trying to find a balance. We both do."

With his bright media profile, it wasn't long before political talent scouts started calling, from every party. Then-Liberal-leader David Peterson sent a personal emissary to woo him. Mr. Kennedy resisted the blandishments. He'd only been in Toronto one year. He wasn't ready.

Later, insiders started suggesting a run for the leadership; in a field of no-names, Mr. Kennedy had a good shot at winning. He'd won a by-election in a former NDP redoubt, York South, beating (now Toronto Mayor) David Miller by 1,118 votes and, by the time Liberals gathered for the 1996 convention, was the front-runner. He led through four exhausting ballots, before Dalton McGuinty grabbed the laurels on the fifth.

So what went wrong? Some observers blamed it on Mr. Kennedy's inexperience, some on his left-of-centre orientation -- too risky a bet in Mike Harris's Tory Ontario -- some on a smear campaign orchestrated by a disgruntled riding volunteer. Other politicians might have been crushed, resentful; Mr. Kennedy rebounded quickly, throwing his support behind Mr. McGuinty.

There have been awkward moments between them but, three years later, when a party cabal attempted to mount a "Dump Dalton" campaign, Mr. Kennedy refused to sign on. Winning the vast education portfolio, the centrepiece of the McGuinty mandate after the 2003 election, may have been a reward for his loyalty.

"He was disappointed," Ms. Arsenault-Kennedy said, recalling the leadership defeat, "but not devastated. The next day, it was, 'We have work to do.' He just needs to know what he's there for. And what he has to do next."

A Thursday morning in September. Mr. Kennedy takes a break from prepping for a candidates debate, leaves his midtown campaign headquarters and walks across St. Clair Avenue for green tea. He says he was encouraged to run for the leadership in February by a variety of people: MPs, senators, party activists, businessmen.

Although considered something of a loner -- a talented artist, Mr. Kennedy's notion of unwinding is to sit down with a sketch pad and charcoal pencils and draw -- he takes soundings from friends and confidantes, including Mr. Harmer; Mr. Sweeney; Katie Telford, his former chief of staff and now national campaign director; her husband, Rob Silver, an energy lawyer and head of his policy team; his father Jack, whom he calls "a touchstone"; and his siblings. Before most major decisions in his life, Mr. Kennedy has flown home to Le Pas to kick the permutations around.

His initial response to the overtures was a polite "no, thanks."

"I was very content doing what I was doing." But he did agree to look at it and, after consultations, decided to run, concerned that the federal party was adrift and that, without a renaissance, would hand the federal Tories a second term almost by default, just as Ontario Liberals had done for Mike Harris in 1999.

"I felt I was the only one who could do with the renewal of the party," he said. "I met with the other candidates. And it's not about their deficiencies. It's about what approach is needed for these times."

Over the past six months, Mr. Kennedy has laid out a broad policy template, calling for the adoption of national education standards, gender equity, energy and environmental initiatives and a review of Canada's military mandate in Afghanistan, an issue that threatens to polarize the convention. He's also spent a lot of time talking about enterprise, what he calls "unshackling the power of the individual to make a difference" and promoting "an innovative, risk-taking climate."

One issue that will require some finesse is the Middle East. When the Lebanon war broke out this summer, Mr. Kennedy warned both his Muslim and Jewish supporters that neither was likely to be satisfied with his position. He was probably right, since he condemned Hezbollah for hijacking the peace agenda and advised Israel to conduct itself with utmost restraint. But when a young B.C. Liberal who supported Mr. Kennedy posted a blog item saying Israel survives "on the blood of innocent people," the candidate quickly disowned him, noting that he played no role in the campaign.

He'd like to be given a mandate for those policies, or at least a nod in their direction. "People have to be buying something. You could slip in and [win by]being the best of the worst, or the only one without too much baggage, or the only one who doesn't fall down, but that's not a mandate and it's not worth having."

Despite his hands-on, let's-review-the-numbers-again style, Mr. Kennedy sees his main role as strategic synthesizer -- to bring disparate parties together and create the agenda that will move things forward. "I established clear goals, at the ministry and elsewhere, and gave a lot of latitude, but was never content to see those things not done. You have to get the implementation. There's nothing worth getting up for otherwise."

This, he conceded, "was a bit unusual for people. They were used to being handed an objective along with, 'Could you at least make it look like this is happening?' But government is not an academic exercise. It's spending people's money and causing some good to happen."

Friends say he is realistic about his chances. The leadership race is a marathon, not a sprint, and Mr. Kennedy is pacing himself, more than content not to be the front-runner. He's learned some lessons from 1996. Better, as the home stretch looms, to run behind the pack, the dark horse -- and the one to watch.

*****

At a glance

Name: Gerard Kennedy

Age: 46

Born: The Pas, Man., second of six children.

Personal: Wife Jeanette Arsenault-Kennedy, a daycare supervisor, and two children, Théria, 7, and John-Julien, 3.

Political history: Elected to the Ontario Legislature in May, 1996. Ran for Ontario Liberal leadership that year and led for four ballots before being defeated by Dalton McGuinty. Ontario education minister 2003-06.

Quote: "My generation has been the complacent one. We had the education and the health care and the economic opportunities, thanks to the sacrifices made by [the previous]generation. And now we need to make sure that the next generation has the same chances."

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