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Jockeying for support for the Liberal leadership burst open yesterday when New Brunswick's Dominic LeBlanc became the first MP to declare his plans to seek the job and Liberal heavyweight John Manley said he was also gauging support.

Arguing that his party has drifted away from the middle class and has disconnected itself from other traditional voting blocks, Mr. LeBlanc said he intends to make a formal announcement after the party decides on the dates and location of the leadership convention, but that his plans are to run.

The 40-year-old Acadian from New Brunswick would present a third option to MP Bob Rae, a former Ontario NDP premier, and MP Michael Ignatieff, the two perceived front-runners. His remarks could start to flush out organizers and other candidates.

In an interview, Mr. LeBlanc said he would situate himself as a centrist.

"I think Liberals want to see the party reposition itself as very much the voice of middle-class Canadians and occupy a pragmatic and centrist position," he said. "Perhaps, in recent campaigns we have drifted from that pragmatic centre of Canadian politics and we haven't given some of the traditional Liberal voting blocks an enthusiastic reason to support us."

He said Canadians expect their national government to play an activist role during difficult economic times, but that it cannot interfere in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to be pushed out of the political centre where "he is pretending to be positioned," he said.

While not directly critical of departing Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, Mr. LeBlanc said the Green Shift was rejected and it wouldn't be part of his platform.

"I think the Green Shift represented a major challenge for us last time," he said.

Also yesterday, Mr. Manley, a former deputy prime minister, said he was assessing a leadership bid "from both a political and personal perspective."

"I hear from a lot of people in different parts of the country that they would like me to run," Mr. Manley told reporters after giving a speech at the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

However, Mr. Manley also made it clear that a leadership bid is not yet a done deal, and that he is only gauging support.

"I'm not jumping off the diving board until I'm pretty sure there's some water in the pool."

At a time when economic issues dominate much of Canada's - and the world's - political debate, Mr. Manley's experience as finance minister would likely be a significant advantage in a leadership race.

"Canadians have shown in the past, generally speaking, they are cautious about electing a new government if it's offering a sharp turn in direction," Mr. Manley said.

Mr. Manley sought the Liberal leadership in 2003, but withdrew in the face of Paul Martin. "I tried to come from behind in 2003, and it's very hard if there's not enough oxygen out there."

Mr. LeBlanc said his party has disconnected itself from francophones, rural Canadians and the West and needs a major rethink and repositioning.

"I think there's a real opportunity for a new generation of leadership in the Liberal Party that can reconnect with the aspirations of middle-class voters."

He said his presence in the race would foster party unity. Mr. LeBlanc is supported by the former chiefs of staff of Canada's last two Liberal prime ministers: Percy Downe, who headed Jean Chrétien's office and Paul Martin's top staffer, Tim Murphy.