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Bob Rae signaled he is really in the Liberal leadership race with a series of broad hints at a panel for potential candidates Saturday.

Striding to the middle of the stage when it was his turn to make an opening statement in session with 16 aspirants, Mr. Rae, the former NDP Premier of Ontario, quipped: "Thank you, I'm much more comfortable in the middle."

Speaking of the Liberal Party as "us," he reminded the audience that he had a role in triggering the demise of two Conservative governments as a federal MP and Ontario MPP.

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"I moved the motion that defeated Joe Clark, I moved the motion that defeated Frank Miller. It's time for a hat trick," he said.

The hint, like nearly every remark in his no-notes opening and answers to crowd questions at the annual meeting of the Liberal Party's Alberta wing, was intended to accomplish a political objective.

The former NDP premier is perhaps the biggest fish in the pool of potential leadership candidates, if not the front-runner, but many in the party have remained skeptical he will really jump in - and that can hurt a leadership candidate trying to sign up organizers and supporters who don't want to back someone who will back out.

"I don't want to lose anybody because they say, 'well, I'm not sure what's going to happen.' I'm not making a formal announcement, but I'm also not being cute," he said after the panel session.

Mr. Rae said his mandate as chair of a review of the Air-India bombings was only formally ended Friday, even though he delivered a final report last year suggesting a full public inquiry would not be useful but some lingering questions should be answered.

He said that kept him from jumping too quickly into the race for the top job in a party he only joined last week.

Mr. Rae deftly confronted his own political baggage in his short remarks - not only his short time as a Liberal, but his much-criticized tenure as premier from 1990 to 1995.

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"My approach is very simple. I agree with Billie Holiday, who said, 'I've been rich, and I've been poor, and rich is better,'" he said.

"Believe me governing in a recession is no fun. It's a difficult and tough thing to have to do, A bunch of us had to do it in the early '90s, and I did, and the main lesson that I've drawn from that is that we have to do everything we can as a country to continue to focus on an agenda that builds prosperity."

Mr. Rae was one main attraction of a stage so full of potential candidates - including a half-dozen who are only flirting with the idea - that their barstools reached from one end of a long stage to the other.

The 16 did not include former minister Ken Dryden, who is expected to run but was at a family wedding, but did include Montreal doctor Clifford Blais, who showed up at the event uninvited but was allowed onstage, and New Brusnwick MP Paul Zed, who Friday attended the campaign launch of author and rookie MP Michael Ignatieff.

It ran the gamut from former NDPer Mr. Rae and just-resigned Ontario minister Gerard Kennedy, considered a left-leaning candidate, to MPs Maurizio Bevilacqua and Scott Brison, both considered fiscal conservatives.

Like Mr. Rae, Gerard Kennedy, who stepped down last week as Ontario education minister to run for the federal leadership, proved a smooth performer on the political stage, impressing the crowd with confident and concise remarks.

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"I put at least one new idea on the table, and I plan to elaborate on it. And that is that Liberals should value enterprise to a much greater extent," he said. That means enterprise in making the economy grow but also making government more effective, he said. "We've been good at prescribing the programs, but actually making them work, and making sure that working families benefit from them is the part we have to become much better at."

Mr. Kennedy, who studied and ran a food bank in Edmonton, is, one of four or five candidates with visible support in Alberta - a list which also includes Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison, author and Toronto MP Michael Ignatieff, and Mr. Rae. Montreal MP Stéphane Dion clearly had some support at the convention, too.

Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, one of only three women among the 16 panelists, also stoked up the crowd of Alberta party members with a passionate call for the grassroots to take control of the party.

"We're fed up with platforms that have not even been run by the party membership. We're fed up that ads can be approved by focus groups on Bay St. instead of by Liberal Party members," she said, to a burst of applause. "We're fed up that paid organizers in this party could be more important than actually the people who have joined this party to make this country better."

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