Thomas Mulcair has launched an underdog bid to transform the New Democratic Party into a broader movement with fewer ties to unions and its traditional elites.
In Montreal at his first official event, Mr. Mulcair showed that he has support among the party's crop of rookie MPs, who have relatively low-profiles and few connections to those in the party establishment, such as former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, who have already endorsed rival candidate Brian Topp.
The attempt to marginalize the NDP brass and union leaders could cost him the support of long-time party members, most of whom are outside of Quebec, where he is best known. But Mr. Mulcair's supporters feel that it is a necessary evolution for the Official Opposition, which will need to win another 50 seats to reach its goal of a majority government in the next election.
The MP for Outremont said the party must expand beyond its "traditional base" if it wants to replace the Conservatives, saying New Democrats must have the courage to "do things differently."
He added the NDP especially needs to attract new support west of Quebec, where it has lots of roots "but not many trees."
Mr. Mulcair acknowledged he faces an uphill battle. To catch up to Mr. Topp, who has support outside Quebec and in the party's base, Mr. Mulcair must sell a massive number of new memberships. On Thursday, he blasted the party organization, saying it is not processing new memberships fast enough to enable people signed up late in the campaign to vote. Quebec is home to 59 of the party's 102 seats, but it accounts for only about 3 per cent of the membership, which is minuscule in a one-member, one-vote leadership selection process.
"The party has an obligation to fix the situation," he said.
Mr. Mulcair's supporters signalled at the campaign launch that they want the NDP to move closer to the political centre.
"The election is about the future of our country, not the past of our party," said Dominic Cardy, the new leader of New Brunswick's provincial NDP.
Retired Saskatchewan MP Lorne Nystrom attended the launch and praised Mr. Mulcair for his decades of experience in elected politics at the provincial and federal levels, a clear reference to Mr. Topp's time in unelected backroom politics.
Mr. Nystrom, who spent 32 years in Ottawa, said that being leader of the official opposition "is not an entry-level position."
Mr. Mulcair said he has the support of 33 of the party's 102 MPs, including four from Ontario. One of them, Dan Harris, MP for Scarborough-Southwest, said at the launch that Mr. Mulcair would bring decisive leadership to a party that sometimes needs a leader who can "use a hammer."
He added that he believes in Mr. Mulcair's plans to take the party beyond its traditional support.
"When you talk about growing the party, we have to grow beyond just union membership and expand out to Canadians who we've never spoken to before," Mr. Harris said.
Mr. Mulcair's strength for now is in Quebec, and he repeatedly invoked the name of Jack Layton, the popular leader who died last August.
"I'm not trying to replace Jack Layton. I want to succeed him by building on what he's already brought," he said.
Mr. Topp's campaign has benefited from the support of Mr. Broadbent, former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and unions such as the United Steelworkers.
The Conservatives are keen to exploit the sense that the NDP and Mr. Topp are beholden to the labour movement, but Mr. Mulcair said in his speech that he wants to serve "only one interest, the public interest."