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The NDP leadership race, like the party itself, is in the doldrums – short on candidates, short on money, short on hope.

"The party is wrestling, almost in an existential way, with what it wants to be," says Kathleen Monk, a long-time party activist who is now a principal at the government relations firm Earnscliffe. "…Is it going to revert to being perennial opposition, or does it still maintain the desire to govern, the vision that [former leader] Jack Layton put forward?"

And yet a space is opening for the once-again third party. Justin Trudeau's enthusiasm for pipelines, his Harper-government-based emissions targets for combatting climate change, his all-talk, as-yet-little-action approach to indigenous issues, and now his abandoned promise to act on electoral reform must have voters who forsook the NDP in 2015 for the Liberals' hopey-changey message starting to wonder. Those voters might be available to the New Democrats, if they can just get their act together.

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Their act may come together soon. Two candidates have emerged as front-runners who offer contrasting visions for the party's future. Each has a different answer to the NDP's existential "protest or power?" question. Together they could galvanize the leadership contest – if, that is, they decide to run.

The candidate generating the most buzz, and the most support within the party establishment, is the 38-year-old deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, Jagmeet Singh. As a first-generation Canadian representing a Greater Toronto riding, the Bramalea-Gore-Malton MPP would instantly make the NDP a force in the coveted suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and Vancouver, where immigrant Canadians abound.

A criminal defence lawyer who is proficient in French, Punjabi and Urdu, with a taste for expensive suits and hipster bikes, Singh is a bit of a heartthrob; more important, he has that ineffable and invaluable ability to connect with voters, a quality that he shares with the Prime Minister.

"There's been, for a period of time, people really encouraging me to consider this, encouraging me to take the next step," said Mr. Singh, speaking of a potential run at the leadership. "I started off just listening. And I got to the point where I thought, let me seriously hear people out and seriously consider it."

Though stronger on sentiment than substance in his policy pronouncements, Mr. Singh is viewed within the party as someone who would hew to the centre-left line forged by Mr. Layton and Thomas Mulcair, both of whom were determined to make the NDP a party of government.

But he lacks experience running a large political organization, and he's not certain he even wants to run for the leadership. "It's a really exciting time for us provincially," he believes. The NDP are gearing up to take on Kathleen Wynne's unpopular Liberals in next year's election. Mr. Singh may well decide to remain at Queen's Park.

The NDP won't choose their leader until October. For now the race is in a holding pattern, waiting for Mr. Singh to make up his mind.

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His most prominent opponent is likely to be Charlie Angus, the 54-year-old Northern Ontario MP and former punk rocker. "People are sending me Facebook messages and that's been very encouraging," he said. "… And people that I respect in the party have been calling me and saying, 'What do you need, how can we support you?' So, if I can put that kind of team together and that kind of energy, then this could be something that could be very exciting for the party."

Though he has not formally committed, betting within the party is that Mr. Angus will almost certainly run. If so, he would carry the banner for the more radical wing of the NDP, which values social protest over any sail-trimming in search of soft Liberal voters.

As "the living embodiment of Canadian diversity and multiculturalism," Mr. Singh "represents the new NDP, while Angus is talking the language of the old NDP," observes Charles Smith, a political scientist at University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon. Whoever ends up leading the party, he says, will need to contend with "the contradictions and tensions within the party:" the Steelworkers Union, which supports pipelines, vs. environmental activists who oppose it; crusaders for social justice vs. realpolitik strategists; the relatively new Quebec wing of the party vs. the traditional Western base.

Thus far, there is no Leap candidate. Documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis produced the manifesto with his wife, the writer Naomi Klein, presenting it at the 2016 NDP convention that voted to replace Mr. Mulcair. Leap calls for a radical restructuring of the Canadian economy toward clean energy in order to combat climate change.

Though much admired by celebrities, the document has little traction with Western New Democrats, who believe the manifesto's call to socialize the means of energy production while also abandoning the oil and gas industry is a suicide platform.

Mr. Lewis, who has said he will not run, agrees none of the existing or potential candidates embodies the Leap movement. "Like everyone else on the left," he said, "I'm still waiting for a candidate who can manifest both incandescent outrage at inequality and the capacity to tell an inspiring story about a healthier, fairer, post-carbon society."

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B.C. MP Peter Julian, 54, who has registered as a candidate, apparently appears to have little support within caucus or the party leadership. Quebec MP Guy Caron, who would embody the party's Quebec voice, is considering a run, while Ontario public-service labour leader Sid Ryan and northern Manitoba MP Niki Ashton are also testing the waters.

With the vote still eight months away, most potential candidates will continue to weigh their options, ignoring a candidates debate scheduled for March. Spring is plenty of time, goes the reasoning, to begin fundraising and campaigning.

Once that campaigning begins, Mr. Singh and Mr. Angus will be the candidates to beat – if, that is, they're candidates at all.

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