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lawrence martin

Early in a conversation with Thomas Mulcair the heavy lumber is rolled out.

You have the reputation of being "too tough to get along with, an abrasive bastard," he is told. "How do you respond to that?"

"I am a very determined guy," replies the potential candidate for the leadership of the NDP. What has led to the harsh criticisms, he explains, is his pushing hard to get results. "My job was to build the party in Quebec. I think that actions speak louder than words. We delivered."

Leaks to the media have suggested Mr. Mulcair didn't get along with Jack Layton's staff as well as many caucus members. The Layton entourage hasn't exactly been running to the forefront to squelch the impression. They're just anonymous sources, says Mr. Mulcair, and "those same anonymous sources are saying all sorts of things. I'll let you come to your own determination about people like that."

There are quite a few people "like that" around. They say that the MP from Outremont has a volcanic temper and an exploding ego. For good measure they add that he's domineering and overly ambitious. They would like to undermine his leadership chances before the race has even begun.

But they might wish to cool their heels. Their take on the former Quebec cabinet minister may indeed have some basis in fact. The hothead Mulcair does seem to possess a brand of arrogance particular to Quebec elites that rubs many the wrong way.

But there's that old saying in politics that nice guys finish last. It is doubly true if the adversary is one as tough as Stephen Harper. From this perspective, Thomas Mulcair's weaknesses may in fact be his strengths. The last thing the NDP wants to put up against this Prime Minister is someone mild of manner, someone who can't take a punch or throw a bunch of them.

Mr. Mulcair comes from an Irish-French background and a family of 10 kids. He learned his politics in the rough ward of Quebec City. One of the first lessons, he says, is that the Marquess of Queensberry rules do not apply. But he rejects the notion that he can't build bridges. "After five years with Jack Layton you learn the fine art of looking for compromise. Constantly."

On the NDP benches, Mr. Mulcair is the most articulate in the two official languages and the most forceful debater. He is near the top of the heap, as well, in terms of political experience, having already served in cabinet at the provincial level. Most importantly, he is the Quebec strongman. With 59 seats in that province, Quebec is now the NDP base and it is Mr. Mulcair who is indispensable to maintaining it. He is the one who, along with Jack Layton, built it.

By comparison, other potential leadership candidates don't stack up. Party president Brian Topp is bilingual and is shrewd, but has no active political experience, no Commons seat and is charisma-challenged. Paul Dewar is highly intelligent, a politician of integrity, but lacks brass and would be vulnerable to Mr. Harper in the same way as a Stéphane Dion.

Mr. Mulcair wants the leadership, but there is a good chance that he won't run. The anti-Mulcair forces want a quick leadership convention, perhaps as early as January, to stop him. "If we precipitate this," says Mr. Mulcair speaking of the convention timetable, "we would be hobbled. The process is going to be a determining factor in our decision."

For the party to hobble the most highly qualified candidate would make no sense. The New Democrats are in the big leagues now and if they want to stay there they need a big leaguer – whether they like him or not.