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NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair speaks at a news conference in Vancouver on Wednesday.

Political parties use leadership contests to generate excitement for their brand, but the candidates to lead the federal NDP are instead defending against the claim that the glory won by New Democrats in the last election has faded with the death of Jack Layton.

On Wednesday, the day after Quebec MP Lise St-Denis defected to the Liberals, Thomas Mulcair said the impetus for the floor crossing was a mystery to him and the loss of a caucus member does not reflect on the NDP's fortunes in Quebec.

Mr. Mulcair, a leadership contender and dean of the Quebec New Democrats, said he disagreed with Ms. St-Denis's view that the NDP surge in the last election was built solely on the popularity of Mr. Layton, who died of cancer less than four months after the spring vote.

"We worked tirelessly in Quebec to build to the result of May 2," he said. "We ran a great team of candidates, many of whom are very young and people are starting to get to know and appreciate, and I am convinced we are going to continue to do really well based on the policies and principles of the NDP."

Meanwhile, Brian Topp, a former party president who is also vying for the leader's job, issued an open letter to New Democrat members saying Ms. St-Denis' decision to cross the floor was not spurred by a sentiment that is widely shared within the NDP.

The cynics argue that Mr. Layton's passing means it's time to return to the "tired old" politics of the past, wrote Mr. Topp, who has the support of some of Mr. Layton's closest advisers.

"We heard that argument just yesterday from a floor-crossing member of Parliament. When asked what about the plurality of voters in your riding who voted for real change, she simply shrugged: 'They voted for Jack Layton. Jack Layton is dead,'" Mr. Topp wrote. "The cynics have the right to believe what they want. And they're probably better off in the Liberal Party. But it's not what I believe. And I know you don't either."

The prolonged race and the crowded field of candidates for the NDP leadership – which have combined to reduce the bench strength of the party in the House of Commons – have made it difficult for any of the eight contenders to get the kind of traction that would suggest they are breaking away from the pack.

Instead, they are traipsing around the country trying to persuade New Democrats that they are the best person to fill Mr. Layton's shoes and rolling out endorsements from members of the party who might hold some sway.

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar announced on Wednesday that he had the support of Mike Cassidy, who led the Ontario NDP from 1978 to 1982.

And Mr. Mulcair accepted the endorsement of Vancouver-Kingsway New Democrat MP Don Davies as he unveiled a proposed policy to double the maximum benefit under the Canada Pension Plan.

The race, so far, has been a genial affair, with most of the candidates steering clear of issues that could force them to butt heads with their rivals.

Mr. Mulcair, for instance, declined on Wednesday to challenge Mr. Topp's recent suggestion that a centrist approach such as that of Mr. Mulcair is not what drove the NDP gains in Quebec. Mr. Mulcair, who was a cabinet minister in the provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest, said he was sticking to the "upbeat" approach to politics he learned from Mr. Layton.

"Brian Topp has provided great service to the party and he and all the other members of this leadership race are going to receive nothing but respect from me," he said. "I learned a lot from Jack. I guess that's because I had a lot to learn. But one of the things I learned from him is to stay respectful, upbeat and positive, especially with regard to colleagues and I am going to maintain that."