Former Ontario premier Bob Rae has taken a key step toward a bid for the Liberal leadership: He has applied to join the party.
While that would be routine for most potential candidates, it marks a breaking of old party ties for Mr. Rae, who was an NDP MP from 1978-82 and NDP premier from 1990-95. Although he was courted by two Liberal prime ministers, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, to run for them in elections in 2000, 2004 and 2006, Mr. Rae did not cross the party divide until now.
One adviser to Mr. Rae's still-unofficial campaign said yesterday that while he is not ready to make the formal announcement, "he is on a track" to join the race to succeed Mr. Martin as Liberal leader.
Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty will shuffle his cabinet today to replace Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, who is resigning to mount a leadership bid. Mr. Kennedy, considered the standard-holder for the progressive wing of Ontario's Liberal Party, is seen as Mr. Rae's chief competition on the left.
Mr. Rae has been travelling the country to meet Liberals and solicit support. He has been making it clear he intends to run, say Liberals who have attended the sessions.
At his side in some of those sessions during the past week, including one Friday in Montreal and another yesterday in Ottawa, were his brother, John Rae, the Power Corp. executive who managed Mr. Chrétien's campaigns, along with Mr. Chrétien's long-time senior adviser, Eddie Goldenberg.
The meet-and-greet sessions have often been held with small groups of MPs, former MPs and Liberal staffers, and amount to a reverse job interview where Mr. Rae talks about ideas for the country and is able to apply charm.
His platform is expected to include an activist role for the federal government and stress the importance of education in fuelling the economy. It is also likely to include some measures for Quebec, including his oft-expressed view that the province's distinctiveness must be recognized.
Some Liberal insiders believe Mr. Rae's campaign strategy will focus more on Quebec than Ontario, the province where he was premier. That's because of his tenure as premier remains controversial in Ontario, and because the field for the leadership race is expected to be packed with Ontario candidates, whereas the Rae camp believes he can appeal to Liberals there.
Mr. Rae's status as a non-Liberal has led to some swipes inside the party and on Liberal blogs -- one yesterday referred to him as "still-not-a-Liberal Bob Rae." Mr. Rae indicated recently that one reason for his delay in joining the party was his appointment by the Martin government to investigate whether there should be an inquiry into the 1985 Air-India bombings.
Mr. Rae reported last year that he did not believe an inquiry was necessary, but his mandate as chairperson of the Air India Flight 182 Review and Inquiry is still in effect.
A spokesman for the federal Privy Council Office, Hali Gernon, said that Mr. Rae's appointment has not been terminated, and he is making himself available to retired Supreme Court Justice John Major, who has been asked to set terms for a public inquiry promised by the Conservatives in the election campaign.
Mr. Rae expects that appointment to be terminated soon, even though he will be willing to help Mr. Major informally, according to a source close to Mr. Rae. "It looks as though that mandate is coming to an end," said the source. "[But]they haven't formally notified him."
Mr. Rae has supporters at his old stomping grounds at Queen's Park, including Health Minister George Smitherman and former finance minister Greg Sorbara.
Mr. Smitherman told reporters yesterday that he encouraged Mr. Rae to seek the leadership because he would be a progressive alternative for the federal Liberals.
"I think he's got the gravitas. I think that he's got the statesman ability and I think he's ready to step into [the]job."