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john ibbitson

Anyone trying to figure out who's winning the NDP leadership race is stuck in a dark hole. But two key questions are emerging that could shape the outcome of the contest.

First, let's explain that dark hole. The last leaders' debate was Dec. 4. The next one is Jan. 29. We are in the middle of a long fallow period, in terms of watching the candidates perform beside and against each other.

Periodically this or that story appears suggesting someone has momentum or someone else –purported front-runner Brian Topp gets named most often – is slipping. But such speculation is exactly that.

There were about 95,000 paid-up members when the party last reported the figures in November. New numbers won't be released until February. No camp has come forward with hard data demonstrating that they have picked up waves of new supporters among the socially engaged in Toronto, among new NDP converts in Quebec, among environmental activists in British Columbia.

Most likely no one has recruited all that many new members, and the existing base will largely be responsible for picking the leader.

And we might not know how they vote until March 24 at the convention. That's because there are two ways to vote. Any party member can cast a preferential ballot in advance of the convention, ranking the candidates from first to (if they want to go that far) last.

But members can also wait until the convention itself, and cast a ballot either in person or online for their first choice. Some people think as many as a quarter of all members will wait until the convention to vote. Others believe almost everyone will vote in advance. We won't know until the eve of the convention itself.

So who is likely to get the most first-choice votes? Who could pick up the majority of second choices among those who choose to cast a preferential ballot? Your guess is as good as mine, and it's not a very good guess.

But two key questions do seem to emerge, on blogs and in conversations with the party faithful. The first is this: Are the New Democrats a party of progressives, or a party of social democracy? Jack Layton sought to expand the party's base by moving away from traditionally social democratic principles of taxation and redistribution through an interventionist state, while retaining an emphasis on improving opportunities and services for those who need the help. In that sense, he was to the right of much of his party.

Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair and British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen probably come closest to fitting the progressive label, while Toronto MP Peggy Nash is closer to the social-democratic roots of the party. Mr. Topp advised Mr. Layton, which makes him more of a progressive. But his rhetoric and platform lean more toward the social democratic.

The second question is equally crucial: Should the NDP concentrate on entrenching the gains of the last election, which made them the official opposition, or should it seriously attempt to defeat Stephen Harper's Conservatives in 2015?

Both goals involve, first and foremost, cementing the astonishing breakthrough in Quebec. This is why Ottawa MP Paul Dewar is letting it be known that he actually moved in with his French teacher, for purely tutorial purposes, during the Christmas break.

But winning the trust of Quebeckers may involve, not just familiarity, but intimacy with the French language and culture. Among the perceived frontrunners, only Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Topp, both of whom are idiomatically bilingual with strong roots in the province, can make that claim.

However, repeating or even modestly improving on the 2011 result in 2015 would likely result in another Conservative majority government. In which case, how can the NDP hope to win power in three and half years without having a serious conversation with the Liberals?

The problem is that the Liberal leadership doesn't want the conversation, and neither, it appears, do most New Democrats. Only Mr. Cullen is openly advocating co-operation with the third party, and his name is rarely invoked as one of the leading candidates.

It would be wonderful to know the will of New Democrats on these fundamental questions. But they don't yet seem to know themselves.

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