The vote on extending Canada's military mission in Afghanistan exposed divisions in the Liberal Party that could play out in the party's leadership.
While most Liberal MPs insisted that the difference in votes turned mostly on their level of outrage at the Conservative move to hold a snap debate and vote, the debate still showed a range of hawks and doves in the party -- and some leadership camps are cautiously underlining the difference between candidates.
Two leadership hopefuls, Michael Ignatieff and Scott Brison, voted with the government to extend the mission, while Maurizio Bevilacqua, Carolyn Bennett, Stéphane Dion, Ken Dryden, Hedy Fry and Joe Volpe, voted against.
Two other contenders, Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy, quickly stated that if they were MPs, they would have voted against, too.
Mr. Rae said Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants the Commons to bear responsibility for his decision without giving enough information about how the mission will change after 2007.
"My experience with these Tories is that this is all about playing hardball," he said. "They just jammed people, and my view is when people are trying to jam you, you say no."
He said the MPs cannot know what the circumstances will be after 2007, and he had doubts if Canada will be in a different kind of mission.
"I have a lot of concerns about the extent to which an anti-guerrilla war in which Canada is directly involved has long-term viability, but I'm prepared to listen to arguments about that. But I certainly think that today is not the moment to make that decision."
Although the differences are not yet black-and-white, the candidates are starting to stake out distinctions on the issue, with some campaigns believing Liberal members will use it to form general impressions about how willing a candidate will be to have Canada participate in military intervention abroad.
Some are clearly trying to distinguish themselves from Mr. Ignatieff, who is already perceived as hawkish because of his support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq before he entered politics.
In the debate Wednesday, Mr. Ignatieff questioned how the mission might be changed, but he supported the extension.
"I support the mission precisely because it is the moment when we have to test the shift from one paradigm, the peacekeeping paradigm to the peace-enforcement paradigm that combines military, reconstruction and humanitarian efforts together," he said.
Only 24 Liberal MPs voted for the government, although many of those who voted against said it was because they felt they did not have enough information to decide on an extension now, and did not like the Conservatives forcing a sudden vote.
Former prime minister Paul Martin was not there for the vote, although he had attended Commons debates earlier on Wednesday.
Mr. Volpe, so far one of the most vocal in questioning the extension of the Afghan mission, said the government did not make its case because it did not provide enough information on the goals of a new mission, and what its impact will be on Canada's military capacity.
He said there are differences between leadership candidates.
"There were a couple who voted in favour of the government's position, and the rest of us that did not. We didn't think that the government had made a good enough position or made a good enough effort to inform the public of what it was going to do . . ." Mr. Volpe said.
Liberals will make Afghanistan part of how they judge candidates on foreign policy, but not an overriding issue, he said. "I think all issues regarding foreign policy will always be framed in reference points that make it easier for people to evaluate positions, so I guess Afghanistan will be significant in that context."
While Mr. Volpe would not say what the differences will indicate to Liberal Party members, or comment on rivals, some of his advisers said the vote will be a "wedge issue" dividing him from Mr. Ignatieff.
Just how wide the substantive differences within the party are remain difficult to gauge.
While Mr. Ignatieff spoke for the extension in a Liberal caucus meeting, one of his supporters, John McCallum, a former defence minister, made a passionate plea to vote against the government motion -- even though he leans toward extending the mission.
"You can't just say, yes or no, extend the mission," he said. "Are you talking about 1,000 [troops] 2,000, or 3,000?"