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Potential candidates for the Liberal leadership are beginning to stake out the central policy positions for their bids, as they seek to attract enough organizational and financial support to make it possible to enter the race.

In interviews this week, five Liberal MPs said they are exploring possible bids, and several placed the issue of environment-friendly economic development at the forefront of exploratory campaigns.

Recent leadership races have seen candidates line up money and organizers and wait to unveil policy ideas later. But in a wide-open race expected to see more than a half-dozen serious entrants, some are talking about core policy concerns earlier.

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"I am considering it because I do not want my country to miss the train of sustainable development, which is the most important issue for the next generations," said former environment minister Stéphane Dion.

Mr. Dion, 50, argued that the Liberals have traditionally had success combining social and economic development, but that sustainable development must become the "third pillar."

"It's not just the environment. It's all industrial activity -- agriculture, fisheries, forests, innovation -- and universities, so that we have a hyper-educated population in the face of a China, which produces 300,000 engineers a year," he said.

Another former minister actively seeking to mount a bid, John Godfrey, also argues that sustainable development is a unifying theme that will draw together strategies for education, economic development, and quality-of-life issues.

Mr. Godfrey, 63, the former cities minister, academic and newspaper editor, said he sees the issue as one that contrasts with the Conservatives, who have derided the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas reductions as a bad deal.

"I think it's up to us as the Liberal Party to grab this agenda, to show that we're clearly different in our approach than the Conservatives, to win back the votes we lost to the NDP, to the Greens, and to the Bloc," Mr. Godfrey said.

For most candidates, the exploratory phase of the campaign requires attracting organizers and money -- at the very least the entry fee, set at $75,000 in the 2003 race.

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The candidates deemed most likely to run are those considered most able to attract organizers and donations, including Michael Ignatieff, Belinda Stronach, Joe Volpe, and Scott Brison.

Rumours that the Liberals might set a far higher entry fee have raised concerns from other possible candidates.

One, Carolyn Bennett, the 65-year-old former public health minister, said she is considering a bid largely to champion democratic reform, including more grassroots influence inside the Liberal Party and a bigger role for citizens in government policy between elections.

"Part of the policy has to be about how you reduce the cynicism that Canadians have about politics and government," she said.

Mr. Brison, who in 2002 ran for the leadership of the old Progressive Conservative Party and crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2003, also raised environmentally sound economic development as a key issue.

He proposed offering "generous" tax credits to those who invest in the research and development of green technologies.

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"The Conservatives are not going to be terribly environmentally sensitive, and the NDP aren't going to want to see the capital markets and investors and innovators earn a proper reward for their risk and intelligence," he said.

The 38-year-old, pro-business, openly gay former minister favours tax reform, including lower income taxes for individuals and capital taxes for business, but also speaks passionately about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as an "eloquent instrument" for social progress.

But he also faces criticism that his French is far from flawless. He insisted -- in French -- that he has been able to converse and conduct interviews in the language, and will improve.

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