MP Paul Dewar has strong credentials in the race to succeed Jack Layton: experience, support and a strong organization. However, as the NDP leadership race nears the final stretch, the other camps are homing in on his weakness in French.
Most New Democrats see being fluently bilingual as essential to running the Official Opposition after the March 24 leadership vote, given that 59 of the party's 102 seats in the House of Commons are in Quebec.
"Of all of the candidates, [Mr. Dewar]is the one who is the least at ease in French, which is a fundamental problem in Quebec," said Trois-Rivières MP Robert Aubin, who supports NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair.
"It doesn't change anything to his depth or his qualities, but in order to become the next prime minister of Canada, bilingualism is essential," Mr. Aubin said.
Mr. Dewar, a former foreign affairs critic who was first elected in 2006, is seen as a top-tier candidate in the New Democrats' leadership race, along with Brian Topp, Peggy Nash and Mr. Mulcair. However, Mr. Dewar, 49, has the weakest grasp of French of the group, even though he grew up in Ottawa. Mr. Topp and Mr. Mulcair are from Quebec, and Ms. Nash has an honours BA in French literature.
"The simple matter is that languages don't come easy to Paul," Mr. Dewar's campaign spokesman, Joe Cressy said. "The answer is you just have to work that much harder, and that is something that Paul is committed to doing."
Mr. Dewar is spending hours every day on his French, travelling with a tutor and frequently listening to French radio and reading Quebec papers.
"He is putting all of his good will into it," said Denis Monnin, a long-time professor who has been working with Mr. Dewar in recent months.
Prof. Monnin said that when the leadership race started last summer, he would have classified Mr. Dewar's French as a Level 1 out of 3. He said Mr. Dewar is now a Level 2, adding it's a matter of months before his pupil's grasp of French reaches the next stage.
Prof. Monnin said Mr. Dewar understands when he reads or listens to French, and now needs to work on his fluidity in speaking.
So far, Mr. Dewar has the support of four of his caucus colleagues, including Franco-Ontarian Claude Gravelle, but no MP from Quebec.
Members of the NDP's Quebec caucus say Mr. Dewar will face a major test next Sunday in a French-language debate in Quebec City. Even if Mr. Dewar does reasonably well, MPs added they still need to be convinced he can communicate effectively in the kind of informal settings, such as television interviews, that Mr. Layton used to boost his popularity in Quebec.
MP Françoise Boivin said that Mr. Topp and Mr. Mulcair are the only candidates who meet her bilingualism requirements.
"I'm sorry, but you can't become perfectly bilingual during a seven-month leadership race," the Topp supporter said.
MP Hélène Laverdière, who took over as foreign affairs critic, said she has noticed constant improvements in Mr. Dewar's speaking abilities since the start of the race.
"Obviously, he still has some ways to go," said Ms. Laverdière, who remains neutral in the race.
Mr. Gravelle said he waited to see whether Mr. Dewar could speak with his Quebec caucus before deciding to endorse his candidacy.
"I had to see an improvement in Paul's French, and I have seen it," Mr. Gravelle said.
In a statement, Mr. Dewar said: "As leader of the NDP and the Official Opposition, I will be ready to take on Stephen Harper in both official languages."