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Liberals hold cards close to chest in Layton's riding - for now

A pedestrian walks across the Bloor Street viaduct into Toronto's Danforth neighbourhood. The federal riding was held by NDP leader Jack Layton from 2004 until his death in August of 2011.

Louie Palu/Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

The Liberals are riding high after the defection of an MP from the rival New Democrats but they are several steps behind the NDP in the only looming contest on their political horizon.

The Liberal Party brass says that is by design.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper could at any time call a by-election in the riding of Toronto-Danforth which was left vacant by the death of Jack Layton. He must do so by Feb. 22 – six months after the former NDP leader succumbed to cancer.

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On Monday, the New Democrats nominated law professor Craig Scott to run for the seat, which sits empty in the House of Commons. But the Liberals have not yet set a date for their own nomination meeting and, as of Tuesday, had no registered nominees.

"We absolutely do have some candidates who are about to come forward," Liberal Party president Alf Apps said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I can't name them but we were waiting for the NDP nomination to get over to see who they picked."

Between 2004 and 2011, Mr. Layton had a lock on Toronto-Danforth. And at other times it has been held by a member of the NDP – most notably Bob Rae, the current Interim Leader of the federal Liberals who was at one time a New Democrat.

But it was the stronghold of Liberal MP Dennis Mills through 16 years and four elections starting in 1988. Only when Mr. Layton first ran there as the leader of his party did Mr. Mills go down to defeat.

So the Liberals are keen on returning the riding to their fold. And a by-election victory would be a huge morale boost as they try to craft a party renewal following the May election that saw their caucus reduced to 34 seats.

Mr. Rae is well known in Toronto-Danforth and the people are comfortable with him, Mr. Apps said. He may not be the party leader at the time of the next election "but he is the leader right now," Mr. Apps said, and he will be at the time of the by-election.

"It's going to be an uphill battle but we think we can be competitive," he said.

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Amiel Blajchman, the riding association president, said in a telephone interview the plan has always been to hold the vote for the party's candidate and the end of January or the beginning of February. And at this point, February looks like a good bet.

"I know some folks have expressed interest," Mr. Blajchman said.

Andrew Lang, a man with a strong Liberal pedigree – his father is former Liberal cabinet minister Otto Lang and his step-father is former Liberal cabinet minister Donald Macdonald – has indicated his name will be on the nomination ballot. His Twitter page declares that he is the "Past and future Liberal candidate for Toronto-Danforth."

Mr. Lang took just 17 per cent of the vote when he ran last May, compared to Mr. Latyon's 60 per cent.

The playing field has changed significantly now that the charismatic NDP leader's name will not be on the ballot. But the Liberals are aware that Mr. Layton's popularity could still have an impact on the by-election results.

"I don't think it's always such a great thing to be talking about Jack Layton because, frankly, this election is not about Jack Layton," Mr. Blajchman said when asked if he thought the prospects for a Liberal victory have improved.

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"We are not campaigning against Jack Layton," he said. "We're not campaigning against his legacy. We're campaigning against the NDP's nominee."

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