David Orchard, once kingmaker for Peter MacKay's Progressive Conservative leadership bid, threw his organizational weight behind Liberal hopeful Stéphane Dion yesterday.
Whether Mr. Orchard can deliver the kind of extensive power on the ground that he demonstrated in two PC leadership races remains unclear, but few doubt that it will mean extra delegate support for Mr. Dion in Western Canada, including his Saskatchewan weak spot.
The iconoclastic organic farmer known for his opposition to free trade was tagged an interloper in the old Tory party, but his network of volunteers -- he is widely rumoured to have a database of 35,000 names -- earned him strong top-three finishes in two PC leadership races, in 1998 and 2003.
Since joining the Liberal Party in January, Mr. Orchard has attended a series of party events, and briefly flirted with the idea of running himself, before tapping Mr. Dion as his choice yesterday.
"He will play a very important role in the campaign. We didn't discuss yet which role it will take, but I'm very pleased he's coming to the team," Mr. Dion said in an interview yesterday.
Mr. Dion said he made no deal for any specific role, nor did he agree to change his platform to include Mr. Orchard's concerns. He said the two have an affinity on environmental and sustainable-economy issues, subjects both have emphasized.
Mr. Orchard is most famous for signing a support pact with Mr. MacKay on the leadership-convention floor in 2003, in which Mr. MacKay pledged there would be no merger with the Canadian Alliance. The deal handed the leadership to Mr. MacKay, who later agreed to a merger with then-Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper.
Critics inside and outside the party complained the deal signed over the Progressive Conservative future to someone who was not an ideological Tory, and then-Alliance MP Jason Kenney, now Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary, dubbed it a "deal with the devil."
"Who was the devil in that story? Who betrayed who?" Mr. Dion asked yesterday, saying that Mr. MacKay reneged.
"In my case, there is no deal, there is only a well-known personality, a Liberal, willing to support me and to give me his expertise, his views, his reputation -- and I'm pleased by that. It will help me to be stronger in order to convince my party and my country that I have the good approach."
Mr. Orchard said that he backed Mr. Dion for his experience, environmental positions and his defence of Canadian unity.
He said he has not changed his views against the North American free-trade agreement, arguing that the softwood-lumber dispute shows the deal is not really free trade at all.
The anti-free trade stand is now also outside the orthodox Liberal position, but Mr. Orchard said he does not feel unwelcome or controversial in the party.
"In the PC party, it didn't take a matter of weeks, and suddenly I was in second place, so I guess controversy can't be all bad," he said.
But Mr. Dion and Mr. Orchard were unwilling to say how much support Mr. Orchard might bring to the campaign, although some Liberal officials familiar with the Orchard organization said that at the very least it will bring in a motivated team of active volunteers.
"Some people think he's got some kind of ulterior motive or something. I don't get it. I feel he just wants to contribute to Canadian political life," said Adam Campbell, president of the federal Liberals' Alberta wing and a friend of Mr. Orchard.
"I think [people]underestimate them. I think they go around thinking they're a kind of quaint bunch of amateurs," he said. "There's an organization there. They know how to work conventions. They've done it twice before."
In July, at the deadline for joining the party in time to vote for leadership delegates, party officials in Alberta and Saskatchewan noted that some of Mr. Orchard's supporters had streamed in -- but no one has numbers.
Other leadership campaigns, including that of Bob Rae, had courted Mr. Orchard's support. A spokesman for Mr. Rae, Alex Swann, said Mr. Orchard attended some of Mr. Rae's events and expressed an interest, spoke to Mr. Rae, and that for a while, "communication continued on that basis."
While some Liberals speculated that Mr. Orchard's backing could represent 150 convention delegates -- about 3 per cent of the total -- some organizers for other camps said that he could only deliver perhaps 30 or 40. For example, about 200 of Mr. Orchard's supporters joined the party in his home province of Saskatchewan, one said. That province is one of Mr. Dion's weakest, however, and with the small membership base there, even 200 supporters could elect a number of delegates.