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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair receives applause from NDP MPs after asking a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There will be kids. The Leader of the New Democratic Party will walk among them, looking fatherly. The announcement of a national child-care plan is his best opportunity to say "I care" to parents of young children, short of actually kissing babies.

The reinvention of Thomas Mulcair has begun. Or rather, it's a new attempt to define him.

Outside of Quebec, he's still a hazy notion to most voters. They might have heard he's pretty good at grilling the PM in Question Period, but they don't much care. He's got a beard, he seems pretty smart and he used to be a Quebec Liberal. But who is this guy?

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"He's a cipher. He's a question mark," said pollster Nik Nanos. His Nanos Research surveys show the NDP has potential: 45 per cent of Canadians would consider voting for the party, a bigger pool than the Tories. But Mr. Mulcair is a distant third when Canadians are asked who would be the best prime minister. "I wouldn't say he's a drag on his party," Mr. Nanos said. "He's a blank slate."

It's rough. Mr. Mulcair has actually had a pretty good month. He took initiative on proposing a federal minimum wage and led opposition to a Canadian mission in Iraq – looking capable, whether you agree with him or not – while making Liberal rival Justin Trudeau look uncertain by comparison. But performance doesn't seem to do Mr. Mulcair much good. Voters don't know him.

When he first took the helm of the party, the NDP, concerned about potential Conservative attacks, rushed to brand him as a strong leader. But 2 1/2 years later, a strong spine is just about the only characteristic most English Canadians would ascribe to him. He needs to flesh out his persona.

So on Tuesday morning, Mr. Mulcair will go to a daycare centre in Ottawa to unveil a promise for a national, subsidized daycare program – according to party officials, something like Quebec's $7-a-day system. Then he'll tour the country, announcing it again and again.

This, for the NDP, is a big one. The multibillion-dollar promise will be a cornerstone of the party's 2015 election campaign. But if it was just that, it could wait till the campaign is rolling, 11 months from now, when people compare platforms. But this is about defining Thomas Mulcair, and that can't wait. The policies are a tool to define the leader.

"If he wants to move his personal numbers, he has to do so now," Mr. Nanos said. "When you get into the election campaign, he has to compete against a Prime Minister and a celebrity politician."

You can argue about whether it's a good policy, or an election-winner. But a national child-care plan is all about parents and kids, and NDP strategists think it's a good tool to warm Mr. Mulcair's image. It shows his desire to do something about a daily concern for parents, who spend a lot of money and time trying to find good care, and address opportunity for working women.

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It's also a chance to show left-leaning voters a grand step that, as one New Democrat put it, can "inspire" the 4.5 million people who voted for the party in 2011 – many of whom, according to polls, are looking elsewhere now.

Is that enough? Mr. Nanos thinks he must be more personal, to develop a connection to voters. He should use policy as a "hook" to talk about his personal story, Mr. Nanos said, perhaps about his own kids.

But Mr. Mulcair isn't a baby-kisser. He has personality, but over a quarter-century in politics he's never been particularly personal in public. Maybe a child-care announcement will let him talk about being raised in a family of 10 kids. But some New Democrats don't think it's wise to get too touchy-feely. If the election is solely about personality, Mr. Mulcair won't win, one noted, so it's better to tell a tale about him as a man of substance – but substance ordinary people care about. He can show passion about things that matter to them.

There will be more. The NDP plans to roll out other policies ahead of the campaign. They're gambling on revealing policies now, because they're running out of time to define Tom Mulcair.

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