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Mulcair leads, but alliances are the wild card

Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier

"I'm neutral in this thing, Swiss all the way," says affable MP Peter Stoffer of the NDP leadership battle. "But, to be frank, it's shaping up as Tom Mulcair's to lose. More and more people are looking at him as the guy who can tackle Stephen Harper."

Nathan Cullen, one of seven remaining candidates, concurs. "I think, for sure, Tom is out front." A popularity poll last week furthered that impression, giving the former Quebec cabinet minister a sizable margin.

Running second, by rough estimates, is Peggy Nash, followed by Paul Dewar – who, while lacking in platform skills, has a strong organization – and Brian Topp. Mr. Cullen, showing more juice than the others, has dark horse status.

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Mr. Mulcair's organizers – "our guy's a pro" – are enthused by the trend line but cognizant of the caveats. There's more than a month to go, and the tangled balloting system can lead to accidental outcomes. But there's something else. The fear, as one Mulcair strategist put it, that the two Big Labour candidates, Ms. Nash and Mr. Topp, join hands at the convention.

It's a scenario many are talking about. Ms. Nash, a former negotiator with the Canadian Auto Workers union, has big support from that quarter. Mr. Topp, endorsed by the United Steelworkers, has that union going full tilt for him. These two candidates get along well, have broad backing and are compatible in their leftish leanings. To be considered as well is that union member support is more readily transferable than that of other delegates.

"If you think of what candidates might be aligning," Mr. Cullen says, "those are the two you would look to." Yep, says Mr. Stoffer, Nash-Topp is "what I'm hearing."

Watching closely is former party leader Ed Broadbent, a Topp supporter. "Steelworkers and auto workers," he says, "do not always act in concert on union issues or in party settings. But it could well be the case here."

It's the Mulcair nightmare. A preconvention Nash-Topp deal could have a similar effect as the Gerard Kennedy-Stéphane Dion pact at the 2006 Liberal leadership convention, with one of the candidates serving as kingmaker to the other.

Mr. Mulcair, it should be noted, has some strong union backing (United Food and Commercial Workers), as does Mr. Dewar.

The Mulcairians are concerned about a high-profile role by Mr. Broadbent at the convention. While he recognizes Mr. Topp's handicap – zero experience as a retail politician – Mr. Broadbent thinks he's the better choice. He fears that Mr. Mulcair, whom some portray as hot and nasty, is not a team player, and he's trying to get out that message.

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Beyond Mr. Topp, who rivals suggest would make a good clerk of the Privy Council, it's Mr. Cullen's candidacy that's impressed Mr. Broadbent the most. The Mulcair camp is not displeased at Mr. Cullen's showing. As a counter to an alliance of the labour candidates, a Cullen-Mulcair convention coupling could materialize. "I like Tom a lot," says Mr. Cullen, not discounting the possibility. The two men, linked strongly on environmental issues, have a more expansive vision of the party, believing it needs to cast a broader, more moderate net to achieve the goal of governance.

Like all other candidates, Mr. Mulcair parts company with the British Columbian on his modified-merger idea of having Liberals and New Democrats co-operate in some ridings against the Conservatives. Mr. Mulcair politely challenged Mr. Cullen on the issue in Sunday's debate in Quebec City.

While they may be eventual allies, the debate saw Ms. Nash go after Mr. Topp for his lack of experience. It also saw a heady performance by MP Niki Ashton, although her campaign has failed to find momentum. And while Mr. Dewar continues to struggle in debates, his campaign has a poll showing that he leads all other candidates in the key category, given the balloting structure, of second preference.

Beyond Ms. Ashton and Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh, all the candidates have a shot in a race that's likely to be determined by alliances. The seasoned Mr. Mulcair is the front-runner, but a Nash-Topp combination would be a formidable force to overcome.

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