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Layton stakes his biggest bet as Jack of Hearts Add to ...

On the night after he led his party to the best election of its 50-year history, the new Leader of the Opposition walked into Toronto's Sony Centre to hear some soulful music.

Jack Layton and his partner in life and politics, Olivia Chow, were hardly the most recognizable faces at the benefit for the Stephen Lewis Foundation: Alicia Keys, Rufus Wainwright, K'naan and Harry Belafonte were among the celebrities at the AIDS fundraiser, drawing more than 3,000 people. It should have been easy for a couple of downtown politicians to blend into the crowd.

The crowd wouldn't let them.

Mr. Layton, 60, was moving slowly, still showing the effects of his hip surgery. Maybe his measured pace drew attention to his presence. “People were clapping, and at first I wasn't sure what it was for,” Ms. Chow says. “And then I realized it was for Jack.”

What had started as a typical evening of socially aware partying for the New Democratic Party leader suddenly turned into a celebration of the hopes his electoral achievement had raised: People cheered, shouted encouragement, even teared up as they rose in a standing ovation.

“It was very special, actually,” Mr. Layton recalls. “There was a wonderfully warm, spontaneous reaction. … I'm sure not everybody there voted for us, but there was a good feeling about what happened in the campaign.”

With Parliament returning June 2, that accumulated euphoria will be put to the test as Mr. Layton tries to wrangle a super-sized NDP caucus full of newcomers and a dominant Quebec wing that may not share his greater goals. Does a nation's goodwill count for anything alongside the trade-offs of politics? Mr. Layton has the emotional backing to confront Stephen Harper, but the pursuit of power isn't an Oprah moment – the warm, fuzzy feelings will come to nothing if he can't quickly translate them into political effectiveness.

“It's going to take all of his personal skills and leadership abilities to keep the party factions paddling in the same direction,” says veteran NDP MP Pat Martin. “This is a party that was born out of protest and has long seen its role as standing outside the gates of power. Now, we've made the leap to Opposition and we can see governing on the horizon.

“For a progressive party, this is the hardest stage: We've got to turn all our ideas and feelings into action.”

But here's the paradoxical reason Mr. Layton might be the man who can put together the seemingly disparate elements of intellect, emotion and ambition: The man who tapped into the shared humanity of the AIDS-benefit crowd is also a born-and-bred politico – one-time leading lefty on Toronto city council, son of a Conservative cabinet minister, and the closest thing to a career politician among the federal leaders. Yet in poll after poll, he's the leader people want to have a beer with, the one you would most trust with your kids.

“He really enjoys what he does,” says his son, Mike Layton, who has succeeded his father and Ms. Chow as a Toronto councillor. “It's not a calculated effort, and I think that's what comes across very clearly, whether you like his politics or not.”

In politics, where going on the attack often offers greater rewards than generosity, being likeable can be synonymous with being a loser. Mr. Harper artfully crafted a new landscape in which economics trump all, and it had become common wisdom that a party touting altruism at taxpayers' expense was living in the past. But suddenly all bets are off.

“My father used to say to me, ‘Victory won't happen in my time,' ” says former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, the son of former federal leader David Lewis and the official host of the Toronto AIDS benefit. “And I used to say to my children, ‘It won't happen in my time.' But now I think it's possible. I'm 73, but I hope I can hang on, because I think Jack can win.”

With 103 seats, the NDP finally has a future, and likeable Jack Layton faces the fight of his life.

Leader of the Proposition?

Opposition is not a word that appeals to the new Opposition Leader: It sounds like cranky co-dependency. “I've always favoured proposition over opposition,” he says a few days after his slow march through the Sony Centre, still making the adjustment from campaign oratory to one-on-one conversation.

Our phone conversation is wedged into what Ms. Chow calls a “nutsy” day of calls and meetings. In the week I spent trying to reach him, I assumed he was hunkered down in Ottawa with his team of strategists, the remote life of the politician who has ascended to a higher sphere. But he turns out to be a short bike ride away in downtown Toronto, eating a late breakfast of Cantonese rice porridge in the house he shares with Hong Kong-born Olivia, her 85-year-old mother, student boarders (including his niece) and numerous friends and supporters who seem to come and go as they please.

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