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john ibbitson

Liberal leader Bob Rae on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 29, 2012.

The Liberals are doomed. No, the Liberals are on the rebound. No, the Liberals are doomed.

In the year since last May's federal election, the prospects for the third party have yo-yoed between grim and hopeful, at least in the eyes of the commentariat.

The shellacking that the party received in that election unquestionably put its very survival in doubt, or so said many pundits.

But the loss of Jack Layton, Nycole Turmel's uncertain performance as interim NDP leader, Bob Rae's much better performance as interim Liberal leader, and a successful policy convention in January gave the party new life, or so said many pundits.

Then Thomas Mulcair's victory in the NDP leadership race, his assured performance in the House and his centrist bend sent the NDP up in the polls, leaving the Liberals doomed again, or so said many pundits.

Which may only prove that pundits collectively suffer from short-term memory loss.

The truth is that the Liberal Party is far from finished as a political force. It is also far from healthy.

The financial numbers tell both sides of the tale. In the first quarter of this year, the party raised $2.4-million from 22,870 contributors, according to information released Monday. That's down a bit from the previous quarter, but still respectable, and probably in the general vicinity of what the NDP took in, though that party's first-quarter numbers weren't available.

But look at the Conservative numbers: $5-million from 36,000 contributors. It was one of their best quarters ever in a non-election year. If the writ were dropped tomorrow, the Tories would be outspending the Liberals by better than two to one.

The Liberals have also reformed their leadership selection process, making it possible for anyone to vote for the next leader, even if they don't join the party. The new "supporters" category, as it is called, kicks off May 2.

This new and more democratic way of voting, one no other national party has attempted, will open the leadership campaign to outside voices and influences. This is risky but still better than the closed-shop alternative.

On other fronts things are more worrying. Mr. Rae is almost certain to run for the permanent title, but Ontario voters appear to have forgotten nothing and forgiven nothing from his tenure as NDP premier in the 1990s.

Yet a credible alternative to Mr. Rae, either inside or outside the caucus, has yet to emerge. And there is no evidence of any meaningful revival of the party brand in Quebec or the West. Without a breakthrough in Quebec, especially, the party has little hope of improving its fortunes.

Boil that down, and you get a Liberal Party that has enough money and supporters to carry on as a credible political force and to mount a meaningful fight in the next election, but without, as yet, a leader or an organization that could win that election or even get past the NDP.

That said, the laws of punditry dictate that everything will look completely different a year from now. Or a week.

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