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They were among the would-be candidates with the most to offer the Ontario Liberal leadership race.

Dwight Duncan, the Finance Minister and Deputy Premier, would have been best-positioned to make the case for pushing forward with an austerity agenda, giving business Liberals a horse they might otherwise lack. And Yasir Naqvi, the youthful Ottawa MPP and party president, was by far the Liberals' best hope for a generational-change candidate, able to maybe offer a degree of renewal just by running.

Instead, within a few days of one another, Mr. Naqvi and then Mr. Duncan announced they will take a pass. In so doing, they send a dispiriting if inadvertent signal to their party about where it stands right now.

To be sure, both candidates had personal reasons not to run.

That applies to Mr. Duncan in particular. He long indicated that he planned to follow Premier Dalton McGuinty out the door, and after a bit of wavering in the wake of Mr. McGuinty's surprise resignation announcement last week, that's exactly what he'll do – declining to seek re-election in the next provincial campaign.

At 53, the Finance Minister is known to be eager to make some money in the private sector before he hits retirement age. If he'd won the leadership, he would have had to pass that up for years longer. If he'd lost, he could well have hurt his standing on Bay Street. And as he discovered with a rather disastrous leadership bid back in 1996, when Mr. McGuinty won the job, losing can really sting.

Mr. Naqvi, meanwhile, has a four-month-old son at home, and knows that leadership campaigns – let alone leadership victories – are brutal on families. One of the few bright young hopes in his party, he also had to consider how much a poor showing could have set back his long-term ambitions.

But those who spoke to both men suggest that, as of late last week, they were open to – and in Mr. Naqvi's case leaning toward – taking the plunge. That was when the opportunity was new and fresh and unexpected, and potential supporters were calling them and telling them that it would be a good idea.

Whatever exactly went on inside their heads, the more they thought about making a run, the more they decided it wasn't worth it. And that surely says something not just about them, but about the prize they would have been chasing – which, when you get down to it, doesn't look like that much of a prize at all.

With the Liberals running third in some polls even before Mr. McGuinty's incredibly clumsy exit, there's an excellent chance that their next leader will only get to spend a matter of weeks as Premier before becoming cannon fodder in a general election.

That could mean a lengthy stint in opposition rebuilding the party, which the federal Liberals' experience shows is no guaranteed success. It could also mean shouldering much of the blame, however unfairly, if the government goes down to crushing defeat; history suggests that inheriting a bad situation doesn't necessarily mean a free pass.

Some reasonably strong candidates will be willing to take their chances. Former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello seems poised to try to occupy the centre-right space that Mr. Duncan has left open. So, too, might Citizenship and Immigration Minister Charles Sousa. And it appears the party's left flank will be well-represented, with one or both of Municipal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne and Health Minister Deb Matthews expected to enter the fray. (Among other would-be candidates weighing their options, none could really make the fresh-face appeal that Mr. Naqvi might have.)

But those with the most to offer also often have the most to lose. So it says something that, before anyone had a chance to drop in, two of the more buzzed-about candidates dropped out. For all that risk, the reward just might not be big enough.

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