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Workers prepare for the NDP leadership convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto, Ont. March 22, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Whoever emerges as the new leader of the New Democrats on Saturday has one task: to tell a story.

It must be the story of a party that is ready to govern Canada, to replace the Conservative narrative of sound management and tough – even harsh – choices with something both responsible and caring.

If enough Canadians embrace that story, the next leader of the Official Opposition will become prime minister in 2015. But if that story rings false, then the NDP will sink back into its historic role of conscience without command.

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"There is a huge opportunity presenting itself to the NDP," said Stephen Lewis, who chairs his own international AIDS foundation and once led the Ontario New Democrats. "This is potentially the NDP's moment in history and in Canada."

Unlike its provincial counterparts, the federal NDP has never been willing to choose to govern. It has preferred instead to promise everything, knowing it would never be asked to perform.

This has changed. A new poll by Nanos Research suggests that half of all Canadians now agree that a New Democrat government would be good for Canada. About a third never want to see such a thing, and a fifth are unsure. An Environics poll this week has the party tied for first place with the Conservatives. Rarely, if ever, have prospects for New Democrats been so promising.

"You can say with real confidence, and with a straight face, that the NDP is for the first time in history in a position where you can actually imagine … that in the next federal election the NDP could go from Official Opposition to government," said Alexa McDonough, who was leader before Jack Layton.

But that potential has lain unrealized for nearly a year, as the party mourned the loss of Mr. Layton, drifted under the uninspiring leadership of Nycole Turmel and debated the choice of a new permanent leader.

With the Bloc resurgent in Quebec and the third-place Liberals under Bob Rae trumping the NDP in the House and in front of the microphones, the party has risked squandering the advantage of its remarkable rise to Official Opposition.

After Saturday, one of the five candidates with at least a chance of victory will be asked to end the drift and realize the potential.

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Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair leads the race, but many in the party fear he will drag it away from its social-democratic roots. Party strategist Brian Topp, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen – who favours increased co-operation with the Liberals – Toronto MP Peggy Nash and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar all hope to prevail by gaining more second-choice votes.

After the members choose, the new leader must heal the wounds that come with any leadership race. But he or she will have to do much, much more.

All of the candidates' platforms envision a socially progressive, environmentally courageous, fiscally responsible and job-creating NDP government. That this represents a hopeless skein of contradictions, the candidates happily refuse even to acknowledge.

How would Prime Minister Whomever protect jobs and grow the economy while raising taxes? Would an NDP government be prepared to sacrifice investments in health care or other social programs to balance the budget?

How would a party wary of dealing with countries that neglect the environment or their own workers promote trade? Would a party with deep Prairie roots choke off future oil-sands development to fight global warming, and what would replace the national wealth it generates?

How would an NDP prime minister respond to a NATO request to join in an attack on Syria? Or a nuclear-armed Iran?

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Finally, and by far most important, will the new NDP leader be someone Canadians can trust whenever the unexpected lands in front of us: a disaster, a downturn, an attack?

Mr. Lewis relishes the challenge. "Everything changes when the leader is chosen and he or she walks into the House of Commons and looks across the floor at Stephen Harper and says the battle is joined," he observed.

There is, he said, "a completely different feel in Parliament and in the country. And if the NDP uses it in a principled way, in a civil way, in an effective way, then there is now the real possibility of emerging as a government."

And, for those who believe in the NDP, that would be some story.

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