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The Liberal Party set the stage for a leadership race with a broad field of candidates, declaring a relatively low $50,000 entry fee for a contest leading to a Dec. 2 leadership vote in Montreal.

The announcement of all of the rules, including details that some expected would not be released immediately, fires the starting gun for candidates to announce whether they will run. Some may enter even before the official April 7 call of the convention, with most expected to make formal announcements soon after that date.

The rules include a $3.4-million spending cap, lower than the contest that chose Paul Martin but a little higher than expected. That was balanced by a rule allowing candidates to raise the first $500,000 without paying the party a 20-per-cent levy.

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In all, the rules provide opportunity for many of the long list of potential candidates to jump in -- and even for a late-starting convention candidate to skip the delegate-selection process but try to win a convention on later ballots.

The party's president, Michael Eizenga, announced the Liberal leadership convention will run from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 at Montreal's Palais des congrès.

That will mean a new Liberal leader will be in place when the Commons resumes sitting in early 2007 -- and some time before Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government delivers its second budget that spring, when opposition parties could vote to defeat it.

"There's no question that we think that Stephen Harper got off to a very, very bad start," Mr. Eizenga said.

"We think it's one of the worst beginnings that any government has ever had. We feel that we need to go as quickly as possible."

The new rules pleased even some potential candidates, such as MP Carolyn Bennett, who has pushed for a far lower spending limit of about $1-million, to ensure that access to funds did not determine who will enter.

Ms. Bennett said that the $50,000 entry fee -- lower than the $75,000 fee set in the 2003 entry race and much lower than some figures being proposed -- was a key element in "democratizing" the race.

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"Now we get to go back to our people and say, 'Here are the rules. What do you think? ' " she said.

The cap of $3.4-million is slightly lower than the $4-million allowed in the 2003 leadership race that crowned Mr. Martin leader, but limits on that race did not include several major items, such as travel costs, that could represent millions more.

This time, leadership fundraising and spending are governed by a 2004 campaign-finance law forcing candidates to declare all contributions and expenses, even if they occurred before the official start of the race.

One other technical change -- creating on-line membership signups -- was seen as opening up the race, after Mr. Martin's leadership campaign organizers were accused the last time of restricting access to membership forms to keep a lock on their heavy lead.

Well over a dozen Liberals have said they are considering a bid, including author and newly elected MP Michael Ignatieff, and former ministers Belinda Stronach, Stéphane Dion, Scott Brison, Joe Volpe, John Godfrey, Ken Dryden and Denis Coderre.

Ontario's former NDP premier, Bob Rae, has also said he is deciding whether he will run.

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Both Mr. Brison and Mr. Dion worked the lobby of the Lord Elgin hotel where the party's executive and leadership expenses committee met on the weekend.

Ms. Stronach, who has built an active organization, issued a statement saying she is "encouraged" by the amount of support she is receiving and will continue to consider a bid.

With a wide field, the race is expected to unfold in three parts: A first period before July 1 will focus on signing up new party members to back a bid; a second phase, from July 1 to Oct. 1, will see campaigns trying to win members' backing in delegate-selection meetings; and a third, from Oct. 1 to the Dec. 2 convention vote, will lobby delegates about switching on second and later ballots.

But the rules announced yesterday could still conceivably allow a big-name late entrant to jump into the race even after the delegates are chosen.

The deadline to enter is Sept. 30, so a late entrant might win enough of the 850 unelected delegates, such as MPs, to stay alive after the first ballot and win on a later round.

The choice of Montreal was one of both cost and political intent, selected in part because the Liberals are desperate to rebuild in Quebec.

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"The decision is important because it will whip up the ardour of Liberals in Quebec," said Robert Fragasso, president of the party's Quebec wing, when asked how they will quiet the ghosts of the party's scandals.

"And I am very confident that the ghosts you are referring to will dissipate soon."

The weekend meeting of the Liberal Party executive also saw the party formally accept Mr. Martin's resignation as leader and appoint Bill Graham as interim leader.

And Mr. Eizenga insisted that a new leader will be in a strong position to fight an election, telling reporters that the party has a lower-than-expected $4-million in total debt, including about $2-million at the party's Quebec wing, and a plan to be in the black by the fall.

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