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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.

Toronto is his base, the city where the Montreal-born Mr. Layton gradually transformed himself from a student-friendly professor of politics at Ryerson University into an agitating force in municipal government and then a national aspirant. He seems in no hurry to set up shop in Ottawa. Even after eight years as NDP Leader, he resists being mistaken for a political insider, always assuming that you can live in the centre of Toronto and still be perceived by the rest of Canada as a man of the people.

This unpretentious Chinatown-area house is where Mr. Layton and Ms. Chow hold their policy discussions, informal affairs around the dining-room table with one or two dozen of their friends and allies. "We talk about what's interesting," Ms. Chow says. "For example, last night we had a discussion about compromises – about whether you can have a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan without sacrificing women's rights."

The house is also where Mr. Layton presides over a karaoke machine and runs hootenanny nights based on the dependably progressive Rise Up Singing songbooks. "People flip to the page they know, shout out the page number and title and away we go," he says. "It might be Bob Dylan, it might be Marvin Gaye, it might be a Gordie Lightfoot number, and everybody just swings into it and belts it out. We have a lot of noisemakers, shakers and tambourines for those who think they're not musical."

The Opposition Leader is entitled to live in a 34-room Ottawa mansion called Stornoway, but the prospect has little appeal. "We'll live in Toronto and go to Ottawa when we work," he says. "I haven't been [to Stornaway] and we're not really thinking about the logistics right now. … We've got a couple of suitcases and we'll move into a couple of bedrooms." In other words, don't expect any hootenanny nights.

"It's all about what you can do for people, not where you live," says Ms. Chow. The 54-year-old's conversational style is lighter and less rhetorical than her husband's, but she too is a 24/7 politico. Her idea of small talk is a chat on national childcare. They are the Bill and Hillary of Canada in the way they reinforce each other's beliefs and aims. "You get one and you get the other," says former aide Jamey Heath.

Ms. Chow's mother is a major factor in their choice to stay Toronto-centred. At 85, she is just mobile enough to walk to the nearby markets that supply her Cantonese seafood preparations. Mr. Layton's own 85-year-old mother also lives here (she commissions portraits of her cats from Ms. Chow, an artist before she went into politics), as does his daughter, Sarah, who is an administrator at Mr. Lewis's foundation and the mother of Mr. Layton's doted-upon granddaughter, Beatrice (he's happily teaching her how to swim).

Toronto is also where Mr. Layton has been getting care after his prostate-cancer and hip surgeries. A workout fanatic with the taut profile and easy confidence of a lifelong jock, he's just come from a physiologist at Princess Margaret Hospital who's assigned him 30 to 40 minutes of cardio a day, plus outdoor cycling and strength training.

"When my dad got prostate cancer," he says, "they more or less told him, 'Go home and rest, listen to your body, don't be active,' which was frustrating for him and I think didn't help his health at all. The thinking has dramatically changed in the last five to seven years and now being physically active is seen to be extremely important."

A child of privilege – and service

It often confounds people who imagine Mr. Layton a congenital lefty to discover that his father, Robert Layton, was a minister and caucus chairman in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government. Political stereotyping doesn't fit the Layton family well: The elder Mr. Layton, an engineer, had previously been a Quebec Liberal involved in the Quiet Revolution – Jack got his start at 12 posting campaign signs.

His grandfather was a minister under Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale machine, who resigned in 1939 to protest its opposition to wartime conscription. This rebellious streak reaches back to his great-grandfather, Philip Layton, a blind organist who campaigned for disability pensions as founder of the Montreal Association for the Blind – his vintage pump organ is a prized memento at the Layton-Chow residence.

Jack Layton had what he describes as "a very, very comfortable upbringing" in the largely anglo commuter town of Hudson, Que. He was a nationally ranked swimmer who still compares himself unfavourably to an older teammate named Dick Pound; an undersized football player who got knocked around in practice by future CFLer and Tory senator Larry Smith (Mr. Layton aims to abolish his former teammate's place of sinecure); and a high-school parliamentarian who devised a strategy to get from opposition into power – he opened up the all-male club to women. "All the young men on the back benches of the government side thought that was a good idea and crossed the floor, and I became premier."

Mr. Layton sees no inconsistency between his background and his role as working-families champion. "My parents' message was, 'Don't ever miss the opportunity to serve.'" But it was at McGill University that he moved toward the values of the NDP, won over by Tommy Douglas's unpopular defence of human rights after the use of the War Measures Act, and by the teachings of McGill philosopher Charles Taylor.

"He really laid out a concept of liberty that I found very powerful," Mr. Layton says of the scholar he still dines with and studies (though he's an agonizingly slow reader whose struggles with print border on dyslexia). "Tommy [Douglas] sums it up well when he says that we can make a better world collectively, and that our individuality can flourish in the context of projects we can work on together. … These were values I'd been raised by my parents to believe in, but I hadn't nailed down the political thinking behind them."

Mr. Layton's world-building prospects now depend on how he handles not only a hostile Conservative majority but the likely disarray of an Opposition that is, collectively, young, inexperienced and heavily weighted toward Quebec.

How to pull off this miracle? "Pray," former NDP leader Ed Broadbent says with a laugh. "It's hardly a secret, but his managerial skills are, to put it euphemistically, going to be greatly challenged. I never dreamt in my lifetime that I was going to see a majority of the caucus come from a Quebec where we took the majority of the seats, with not a single seat from Saskatchewan. … Jack and [Deputy Leader] Tom Mulcair will have a tough job just getting them to be effective members of Parliament and to integrate them into the party's pan-Canadian view."

The party's Orange Crush takeover of Quebec, the source of its new-found potency, undoubtedly had to do with a shared vision of social-democratic principles, Mr. Layton's nuanced critique of the Afghanistan mission and the way the NDP has (controversially) positioned itself to accommodate sovereigntist longings. But it was just as much about the ex-Montrealer who put on a vintage Canadiens jersey and hoisted a pint at a sports bar, who limped along the campaign trail with a human dignity not usually noticed in vote-chasing politicians, and who happily let himself be made fun of on the raucous must-see TV show Tout le monde en parle.

"Going on that show is like running the gantlet," says Montreal commentator Anne Lagacé Dowson, a former NDP candidate. "And Jack does it incredibly well. … He's unfazed by the wackiness and the curveballs that they throw at him. People saw a choice between Gilles Duceppe's crabby, frustrated persona and Jack's smiling face and they said, 'Why not give him a chance?'"

But to any who might be inclined to overestimate the NDP's gains, she warns: "The party's candidates have to be hyper-aware that it was Jack Layton who was elected, and not them."

If the 59 Quebec MPs see that their political future depends on making the leader and the party look good, their next four years will proceed more smoothly. In turn, if Mr. Layton is to satisfy anyone beyond the party faithful, he'll need to find ways to manipulate the Tory majority.

"He can systematically pursue something in Question Period and propose alternatives that can influence the next election," says Mr. Broadbent. "But also, when you raise issues persistently, consistently and credibly, they can be stolen from you by the governing party – and that's the highest form of flattery. … [Mr. Harper] doesn't share my values, but he does want to win, and any party that wants to win will reach beyond its own ideological base. The task for Jack is to get in some items that tempt the government, while building up popular opinion, so that in the next election he can be even more persuasive."

Coming second federally may seem like victory to many long-time NDP supporters, but Mr. Layton's ambitions are different: Even though he talks about his ability to work with Mr. Harper – despite Mr. Harper's insistence to him personally that they have little in common, and criticisms from NDP commentators such as James Laxer that moving centrewards is a betrayal – he's not content with being Mr. Congeniality.

If he's spent eight years getting Canadians to take him this seriously, to the point where he destroyed the Bloc Québécois and sent a chastened Michael Ignatieff back to the classroom, it's not so he can languish as Mr. Harper's designated chew toy. Why play second banana as the country's social conscience when you can audition as prime-ministerial material?

Starry-eyed or shrewd?

Many observers will tell you that Mr. Layton is deluding himself – that he and his party aren't ready for prime time and may never be.

"I just think that the complexity of running a national government eludes him," says former Liberal MP Dennis Mills, who lost his Toronto seat to Mr. Layton in 2004. Mr. Mills cites the occasion that year when Mr. Layton directly blamed former prime minister Paul Martin for the deaths of homeless people in Toronto.

"He shoots from the hip a little too quickly. It's a style he learned on Toronto city council, where he was the master … of getting the media's attention. When you've never had the responsibility of governing, that's something you can afford to get away with."

But maybe he's changed. In the weeks after the election, Mr. Layton mostly stayed out of the public eye. As one who intends to propose rather than oppose, he has been busy assembling the shadow cabinet announced this week and working on plans to improve the welfare of seniors, to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, to alter rules about the use of French in Quebec workplaces, to argue that Mr. Harper's stacked Senate is thwarting the democratic will and to rethink Canada's Afghanistan mission.

"With the death of Osama bin Laden, there's a real change in the dynamics of Afghanistan," he says, in full debate mode, "and I believe the Canadian people were hoodwinked by Stephen Harper's collaboration with Mr. Ignatieff on the extension of the mission."

When he started expressing such doubts in 2006, his enemies delighted in damning him as Taliban Jack. Now military officials openly discuss engaging with the insurgency. "That's the classic role of the Opposition," he says – to "put forward a proposition about a different way of doing things. Sometimes it takes a while for public opinion and the other political parties to come round to it."

That's the activist side of Mr. Layton, glorying in taking heat: On the left, such attacks are a validation, a sign that you haven't given in and gone too Liberal. But there is political method there too: The policy clearly resonated with anti-war Quebec.

Equally far-sighted is Mr. Layton's commitment to change behaviour in the House of Commons "from its present mud-wrestling match and childishness into something more adult." NDP MPs who make the mistake of heckling get an intimidating glare from their leader and a subsequent talking-to from the party whip. "I think Canadians just began to find what's going on in the Commons quite repulsive." It's a low-risk, high-reward plan that doesn't require Mr. Harper's consent to succeed.

It's telling that Mr. Layton was once renowned for his showy displays at Toronto council. "He used to be a crawl-across-the-desk kind of guy, pounding his fist, that sort of thing," Pat Martin says. "But you can't sustain that kind of choleric: You look like a fool and it eats you up inside. He's learned his lesson."

The move is also strategic – a polite, civil NDP repositions Mr. Layton's reformism as moderate Cana- dian values, almost duplicating the Conservative mainstreaming of Mr. Harper before him.

Others still think Mr. Layton's style has its limits. This, after all, is the same man who pushed for Toronto to become a nuclear-weapons-free zone – a success that speaks for his skill, but perhaps not his sense of proportion.

Ontario Liberal MPP Mike Colle teamed up with Mr. Layton on transport issues on Toronto council; their sons often co-operate as municipal politicians today. While he praises Mr. Layton's capacity for work ("his office was like a perpetual political-action machine on every issue conceivable"), Mr. Colle says that his was "a brand of social populism that doesn't want explanations."

For example, Mr. Layton's small-is-beautiful fixation on cycling undercut Mr. Colle's own mass-transit schemes: "You could never argue with the cycling people. … And yet the reality was that unless you build road infrastructure and transit systems, all the work on bike lanes doesn't make the city more mobile at all."

Mr. Layton's cycling faction prevailed, but arguably with long-term consequences – the eventual election to mayor of right-wing Rob Ford, harping on a "war against the car."

Risk-taking and responsibility

Still, bike lanes aren't a federal issue. Perhaps the more crucial lesson is that the two-wheeled campaign beat long odds.

"You get a sense of what a determined, creative risk-taker Jack was," says Myer Siemiatycki, who has taught politics at Ryerson since Mr. Layton's days. "His platforms were never those an ambitious careerist would have chosen. There are much safer routes to stardom."

That's why Mr. Layton appeals to NDP colleagues who refuse to accept that a high-minded belief system is a losing proposition. "He's put the elements in play for a victory," says Pat Martin, who initially opposed Mr. Layton's Toronto-centric urbanity when he was chosen as leader in 2003. "Jack is the master of a personalized management style, which is a rare skill set on the left. … He's slowly but surely rebuilt the NDP from a dysfunctional group of activists, without losing sight of our founding principles, and that's why people trust us now. People know we've evolved into a modern social-democratic party."

Or maybe they just like Mr. Layton. Charm is a strange thing in a politician – it's never clear when it will translate into votes and when it's just an attractive waste of breath, the foam on a sports-bar pint. It worked this time thanks to circumstances that won't necessarily be available in four years, and the Tories even have an interest in sustaining it, if it keeps the Liberals from regrouping. Mr. Harper, after all, is still the Prime Minister, and no one thinks he got the job because of his beer-hall chumminess.

However, charm is also a great quality for getting things accomplished in a non-partisan environment with dialogue and understanding. As president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in the 1990s, where he worked with mayors across the country – and cleverly built his national profile – Mr. Layton was celebrated as a non-ideological problem-solver. That may be where he began his shift to what he calls "principled pragmatism."

Gerry Furney, the mayor of Port McNeill, B.C., recalls a Layton speech from that era: "He came across as a middle-of-the-road person making some good arguments, and by the end of the speech he had the delegates eating out of his hands. I approached him in the foyer afterwards … and asked him if he'd ever thought of joining the Reform Party and running for leadership."

A committed NDP politician who can come across as solid Reform material – it almost makes you think our ideological differences matter less than our common humanity. But party politics exists to eradicate such fantasies, no matter how civil an Opposition leader tries to be.

Always in character

The leader most Canadians want to have a beer with opts for coffee – a triple-shot Americano decaf – when I finally get to meet him. It's taken a while to land an hour of face time, but here Mr. Layton is, recognizably unassuming in his streamlined bike wear at a small, studenty café near the Art Gallery of Ontario called (aptly enough) Orange Alert.

It's meant to be a chat about life outside the narrow frame of politics. But this is Jack Layton, who can't stop his bike at a light without talking shop to someone, or mention the TV series 24 without observing "it stars Tommy Douglas's grandson, Kiefer."

While Ms. Chow sits at the next table on her BlackBerry, we talk about the Layton family's music store in Montreal, our shared pleasure in Matt Damon's Bourne action films, the Trekkie costumes he and Ms. Chow once notoriously donned (for an AIDS fundraiser – it turns out they're not really crazed devotees) and their 1988 wedding on the Toronto Islands, which I stumbled across with my children.

"I broke my leg 10 days before, so I had to go in on my cane, just like in the election. I even got the sympathy vote at my own wedding! Olivia came over on a barge, a balloon-infested barge – it was very dramatic. And from there we ended up at a big banquet in Chinatown and then we had a big dance at St. Lawrence Market with Parachute Club. It was a ball."

I tell him I don't get how anyone could live so completely in public. "Jack is never alone," one operative tells me, and Mr. Broadbent says: "Some of us want to get away from it all, but not Jack. He loves to socialize."

Getting away is a distinction that doesn't exist for Mr. Layton. Almost on cue, a young art student who's overheard us comes up to chat about Matt Damon's role in Clint Eastwood's film Hereafter. Mr. Layton has range, and the willingness to deploy it.

But even in the most casual street-corner café, where the admiring Korean owner offers the NDP leader a healthy-looking oatmeal cookie on the house, the language of Ottawa keeps taking over – problem solving, principled pragmatism, robust policies for key economic sectors, core values of fairness and equality, making nice to Bank of Canada chief Mark Carney – "I have no doubt he'd be able to work with us, because we're focused on stable, predictable frameworks."

I get it. He's on his way to Ottawa. He's a politician. That's his job, his purpose and, more and more, his life.

But when the people stand up and applaud, it's for something else entirely.

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.