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Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent gives an interview at his Ottawa home on March 14, 2012.

Blair Gable/blair gable The Globe and Mail

After providing an early boost to backroom strategist Brian Topp, NDP sage Ed Broadbent is now taking aim at the leadership candidacy of Thomas Mulcair and his promise to modernize the party.

In his first public comments on the matter, Mr. Broadbent raised concerns about the future of the New Democratic Party as a social-democratic force if its 130,000 members choose the centrist Mr. Mulcair at the Toronto leadership convention on March 24.

"It would be a central mistake for us to move in a calculating way to the centre," Mr. Broadbent said from his home in Ottawa this week.

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Mr. Broadbent also wondered openly about Mr. Mulcair's abilities as a leader, namely in terms of maintaining cohesion among the large 101-member Official Opposition caucus. His comments echoed a concern among NDP workers and supporters about Mr. Mulcair's temper, which he has carefully kept in check during the seven-month race.

"People should look carefully at the fact that of the people who were there [in caucus from 2007 to 2011]with Tom, 90 per cent of them are supporting other candidates than Tom," Mr. Broadbent said.

The former NDP leader said many party heavyweights are "supporting Brian, who doesn't have a seat, over Tom, the man they have worked with. I don't think it's accidental."

Mr. Broadbent said the matter will be especially important between now and the 2015 election.

"Leadership skills are crucial in holding your caucus together, and I think that Brian has an advantage over Tom in that respect."

Mr. Broadbent focussed his comments on Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Topp, whom he believes are the most likely candidates to reach the final ballot in the seven-member race. However, there is a sense in the NDP that Mr. Topp – deemed the initial front-runner because of his blue-chip endorsement – has disappointed some New Democrats with his lack of experience in elected politics.

There is an intense battle going on between Mr. Topp and two Ontario MPs – Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar – to be seen as the embodiment of traditional NDP values and the most able to offer continuity with Jack Layton's leadership.

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Mr. Broadbent continued to boost Mr. Topp's candidacy, vaunting his intellect and his ability to unite the party behind a social-democratic agenda in the fight against the Conservative government.

Still, Mr. Broadbent acknowledged that Topp has faced a steep learning curve as the only senior candidate without a seat in the House. The former leader added that the strategist and union leader has improved at every event since his campaign launch.

Mr. Mulcair has mounted a strong and well-funded campaign, highlighting his skill as a public speaker and winning endorsements from 42 MPs, although most of them are rookies elected in last year's "orange wave" in Quebec. Mr. Mulcair argued he has momentum in the race to replace Mr. Layton, who died last August, announcing the endorsement this week of Newfoundland MP Jack Harris, the party's justice critic.

There is also growing evidence of collaboration between Mr. Mulcair's team and one of the least-known candidates in the race, Nova Scotia businessman Martin Singh who has frequently clashed with Mr. Topp.

During the interview, Mr. Broadbent expressed his displeasure at Mr. Mulcair's vague promises to "modernize" the NDP, as well as his attacks against "Laurier Avenue," a reference to the location of NDP headquarters in Ottawa.

"If there has been a real modernizer in the party, it's been Brian Topp, working hand in hand with Jack Layton," Mr. Broadbent said. "Whether it's campaign techniques, updating policy or fundraising, Brian has been at the forefront."

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Like other New Democrats, Mr. Broadbent also expressed concerns over the lack of French-speaking abilities of at least one candidate, whom he refused to name but is widely known within the Topp campaign as Mr. Dewar.

"It's obvious to me who is not fluently bilingual [among the candidates]" Mr. Broadbent said, stating the next leader has to be perfectly at ease in both official languages.

Mr. Broadbent refused to state who would be his second choice if Mr. Topp does not make the final ballot.

EXCERPTS FROM ED BROADBENT'S INTERVIEW

On his early endorsement of Brian Topp, at the expense of sitting MPs: "I didn't know for sure who would be a candidate, but I knew enough about them to have been able to make up my mind for Brian before any of the other probable or possible candidates came on."

On Brian Topp's abilities: "His depth, his intelligence, his commitment to the party, his strategic sense, his commitment to social-democracy – to me, he was a known and positive entity."

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On Brian Topp's steep learning curve in public: "In person, he is warm, witty, very direct and thoroughly engaging. In the first TV presentation, he was withdrawn a bit and didn't, as I know him in person, make a forceful presence. ... His last debate was by a considerable margin the best, and it was nice to end up well. It was a matter of improvement."

On the "Third Way," or efforts of social-democratic parties to move to the centre: "The UK and, to a lesser extent, the Germans – they went astray with over-marketization. We have paid as a movement the cost of that."

On Thomas Mulcair's promise to modernize the NDP: "Tom has talked about 'boiler-plate' social-democracy. What does he mean by that? Is he saying that concern about equality is a boiler-plate item? It's not, it's a core value."

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