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In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s next task: Win over the country Add to ...

He has emerged from Jack Layton’s shadow, won over his party and earned the respect of people who follow Question Period. But now Thomas Mulcair has a bigger battle – to win over the country. And he must do it this year, long before the 2015 election campaign. He must also raise money at a rate his party has never known, and connect with a suburban middle class unsure of who he is. Most important, he must find some way to steal the spotlight from the hyper-charismatic Justin Trudeau.If he succeeds, persuading Ontario to swing left – and Quebec to stay there – he will offer New Democrats their best-ever shot at power. If he fails, he may lead them to the back of the pack.

High stakes. But Mr. Mulcair is supremely confident after his brilliant performance during the Senate expenses scandal; his relentless, prosecutorial grilling damaged Mr. Harper’s credibility and solidified his own reputation as a tactician.

“In 2015, people are going to be looking for somebody able to run the country,” he told The Globe and Mail during a wide-ranging conversation in his spacious Centre Block office above that of the Prime Minister. “I’ve got 35 years’ experience.”

The question is whether, even with those 35 years, Canadians are ready to hand the reins to the tax-and-spend social democrats, and to a leader often portrayed as impersonal and inaccessible?

His chief rivals have problems. Mr. Harper is battling scandal and voter fatigue while Mr. Trudeau is untested and still struggling to revive a party not far removed from its deathbed.

But both are much better known, and even the oft-maligned Prime Minister is more popular, a deficit Mr. Mulcair must overcome quickly. In politics, momentum is a fickle force, and the afterglow from the Senate scandal may soon fade.

His party has a strategy, however, one it hopes will make Mulcair a household name, and this week the first polling of the new year offered some encouragement. Nanos Research reports that, among voters asked which party they would consider endorsing, NDP support is holding firm while that of both the Liberals and Conservatives has not. Even better, Mr. Mulcair’s personal appeal went up and Mr. Trudeau’s fell, a sign the Liberal leader’s honeymoon may be coming to an end, just as a Tom-meets-the-people tour is to begin next week.

A threat to party unity – free trade with Europe – will reappear when Parliament returns Jan. 27, but he at least has had practice at healing internal rifts.

When Jack Layton lost his battle with cancer on Aug. 22, 2011, the NDP faced a crisis: how to replace a leader so beloved that even a Conservative luminary, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, remembered him as “someone who turned out to be a great man.”

The ensuing leadership campaign attracted eight candidates but boiled down to a race between Mr. Mulcair and another Quebecker: Brian Topp, a former party president favoured by the NDP establishment. Although he was deputy leader and had been in Ottawa for four years, Mr. Mulcair was still considered an outsider who might drag the party toward the mushy middle. He was also known for his quick temper. Feelings against him ran so high in some circles that former leader Ed Broadbent felt compelled to speak out.

“People should look carefully at the fact that, of the people [in caucus] with Tom, 90 per cent of them are supporting other candidates,” the NDP’s grand old man, then 75, told The Globe and Mail.

Nonetheless, when the vote was held in Toronto on March 24, 2012, Mr. Mulcair won convincingly on the fifth ballot. He then moved quickly to heal internal rifts – leadership rivals were given prominent positions in his shadow cabinet, former Layton aide Karl Bélanger became his principal secretary and, later, Anne McGrath, his predecessor’s chief of staff, was asked to lead preparations for the next election.

He also had to weather a crisis that divided his caucus, again without being dictatorial. When the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois introduced a motion to repeal the Clarity Act, the federal legislation that requires a clear majority vote before a province can try to secede, the NDP was torn. Their own policy was similar to what the Bloc wanted. But while some MPs, mostly from Quebec, supported the motion, others wanted nothing to do with propping up separatists.

In a caucus meeting that lasted hours, Mr. Mulcair heard everyone out. Later, he met MPs individually and in small groups to explain that, while the party could never support the Bloc motion, neither could it repudiate its own policy. In the end, the NDP put forward a “unity bill” worded so that it could vote against the Bloc.

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