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Canadians still unfamiliar with NDP leadership contenders, poll shows

NDP leadership contender Thomas Mulcair speaks to reporters at a Vancouver news conference on Jan. 11, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

More bad news for the NDP: 40 per cent of Canadians haven't heard of any of the eight candidates in the leadership race, according to a new online poll.

Even worse, 35 per cent of New Democrats could not recognize the candidates running to replace the late Jack Layton. The campaign to decide Canada's next official opposition leader – basically the prime minister-in-waiting – is to be decided in less than two months, on March 24 in Toronto.

The new Abacus Data poll, released Friday afternoon, follows several national opinion polls this week that showed the NDP slumping. Although they remains in second place, the Liberals have momentum coming out of their policy convention two weeks ago.

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There is some positive news in this online survey for several of the candidates, however.

Thomas Mulcair, the fiery Quebec MP and one of the front-runners, is the best known of the candidates both nationally and in the all-important province of Quebec, where he is known by 67 per cent of the respondents. Nationally, he is known by 36 per cent of Canadians.

His recognition in Quebec is important as the province was the key to the party's success in the May campaign. More than half of the NDP caucus is from Quebec, which propelled the NDP into official opposition status.

"Biggest surprise is the strength of Thomas Mulcair in Quebec and the lack of awareness of the candidates among Canadians, especially among NDP supporters," says pollster David Coletto. "The results also confirm Mr. Mulcair's primary argument that he is best positioned to maintain the NDP gains in Quebec."

Following Mr. Mulcair in Quebec are Brian Topp, a backroom strategist who grew up in Montreal. His name is recognized by 31 per cent of Quebec respondents; he has the same name recognition nationally.

The other Quebec MP, Romeo Saganash, is known by 24 per cent of Quebeckers compared to only 11 per cent nationally.

After Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Topp, the two other most recognized candidates nationally are Ottawa MP Paul Dewar with 27 per cent and Toronto MP Peggy Nash with 23 per cent.

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Manitoba MP Niki Ashton is known by 9 per cent of Canadians, according to the survey compared to Nathan Cullen, a B.C. MP, and Martin Singh, a Nova Scotia businessman, who are known by eight per cent of Canadians.

Meanwhile, 36 per cent of Ontario respondents had heard of Mr. Dewar compared to 33 per cent for Ms. Nash – the two Ontario candidates. Mr. Mulcair, however, is known by 23 per cent of Ontario respondents.

And Mr. Topp, who comes from Quebec, worked for Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan and now lives in Toronto, is known by 28 per cent of those who were polled from Ontario.

But he tops the poll in western Canada with 35 per cent compared to 30 per cent for Mr. Dewar and 18 and 16 per cent for Mr. Cullen and Ms. Ashton, respectively, who are both from the west.

Fifty-one per cent of Atlantic Canadians have not heard of any of the candidates. But of those who have, 32 per cent recognize Mr. Dewar compared to 26 per cent for Mr. Topp and 23 per cent for Mr. Mulcair.

A leadership debate is scheduled for Sunday in Halifax. So far the debates have attracted few headlines, although observers and NDP officials predict this will change as the clock ticks down to the vote. In addition, membership sales close in a couple of weeks.

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"I think that it was a fairly long leadership race ... we're going now into the last two months of it and I really believe it's going to sharpen up," says Anne McGrath, the chief of staff to NDP Interim Leader Nycole Turmel. "I think the media is going to start paying more attention to it ... because they have to. We are choosing the official opposition leader."

She believes, too, that although there will be no mudslinging, sharper lines of division "will develop" among the candidates.

The survey of 1,000 respondents was conducted between January 16 and January 19.

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