Five candidates were on stage in Montreal for a New Democratic Party leadership debate, but the absence of one man loomed large.
Leading contender Thomas Mulcair, whose base is in Quebec, skipped out on the debate organized by local MPs and students at Concordia University to attend an event in Montreal's east end.
"I find it odd," Nathan Cullen, a British Columbia MP, said before the Wednesday evening debate. "We've known about this debate for a long time, and this kind of event should be a focus. I'm surprised he's not here. I hope he has a really good reason."
Mr. Mulcair was at a Mike's Restaurant at the other end of the city for a meet-and-greet organized by local MP Ève Peclet. The event was set before the debate, and Mr. Mulcair has already attended events with West Island MPs, said Raoul Gebert, his campaign manager.
"It's not always easy to juggle all of these things," Mr. Gebert said, pointing out that Wednesday's forum was not a party-organized debate.
Last week, Mr. Mulcair, who was Quebec lieutenant for the late Jack Layton, announced he a major membership drive in Quebec, making his absence harder to explain. Mr. Mulcair's name was never mentioned, but one or two sharp arrows were aimed at him.
Brian Topp, the party backroom operator who is among the front runners, said Quebec's "right-wing government" under Jean Charest tried to raise tuition fees early in its mandate. Mr. Mulcair was a senior cabinet minister in that Liberal government.
With the NDP slipping in polls in Quebec, which accounts for more than two-thirds of its seats, Mr. Cullen said he recognizes the "urgency in the situation" and the need to boost the party's profile through events such as Wednesday's debate.
Others pointed to the long-term building job needed in Quebec, which lags far behind several smaller provinces in NDP memberships.
"We've struggled for years in Quebec. We need to build in Quebec, including by showing up for events like this," Mr. Topp said in an interview. But he insisted he has no problem with Mr. Mulcair and two other candidates missing the forum.
Support for the NDP in Quebec has slid to 29 per cent in a CROP-La Presse poll released on Wednesday from 53 per cent in June. The result still put the party in first place in the province.
In a leadership race that is supposed to energize party activists, the candidates have been chided for failing to find many differences among them, sleepy debates and not engaging public imagination.
The Dec. 4 debate was remarkable mainly for its collegiality. The Wednesday meeting was also quite cordial, although Mr. Cullen, the only candidate to suggest co-operation with Liberals and Greens, attempted to make much out of small differences over education policy.
Even on gun control, a policy that deeply divides the candidates and the NDP caucus, Niki Ashton and Martin Singh, a Nova Scotia pharmacist, at first papered over the varying positions by concentrating on their support for Quebec's wish to build its own firearm registry.
"We actually don't agree on this," said Peggy Nash, a Toronto MP and gun control advocate, finally introducing a note of discord. "To just talk about Quebec is to duck the issue," Mr. Topp added.
Ms. Ashton, the Manitoba MP who became a Conservative target for flip-flopping to support the registry, protested that NDP discord over gun control risks "playing into Stephen Harper's politics of division, pitting rural against urban."
The biggest cheer from the students who dominated the crowd, which filled about two thirds of the 570-seat Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, was for consensus on support for recognition of a Palestinian state.
Concordia students are famous for rioting over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Romeo Saganash, another Quebec candidate, cancelled at the last minute due to family illness. Paul Dewar was campaigning in St. John's.
All of the candidates are expected at an official party debate in Halifax on Sunday. NDP members will vote for a new leader March 24.