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Mulcair livens up NDP race with challenge to party faithful

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

The NDP leadership race is entering its last laps and the stakes are rising. Not just because the time for candidates to break away from the pack and develop a lead is getting shorter.

No, an arguably bigger threat for New Democrats is the pretty comprehensive evidence that they have been fading from public view while the Liberal Party brand and its steward Bob Rae are reconnecting with larger numbers of mainstream, centrist voters – especially in central Canada. The relevance of the NDP is not a given, despite its Official Opposition status.

Since the beginning of the leadership race, it has been remarkable for two things. First is the relative gentility of the NDP candidates towards one another. Hard to fault that, but also makes it harder for most people to pay attention if they don't see some fire, conviction, a test of wills and personalities. It doesn't have to be UFC, but boxing with headgear, maybe?

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But the other thing that has been striking about the race is how (ironically) it resembles the Republican nomination race in the United States: It's relentlessly about the base. Try to tune in, and if you're not a party member, chances are you'll tune out quickly. It's reminiscent of those soap operas that ran on daytime TV for decades: For those who know the characters and enjoy plotlines that keep repeating themselves, it's must-see TV. For everyone else, not so much.

Of course, it's highly logical that leadership candidates are trying to win the hearts of card-carrying members. But just like the Republican candidates down south, it's easy to get the impression a candidate who tries to win voters outside the tent might be frowned upon by the rank and file, and find themselves living under a cloud of suspicion.

For Mitt Romney this week to declare his bona fides as a "severely conservative" politician (at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington) was inevitable, but also sort of ridiculous. The Republicans will face a talented opponent with a possibly recovering economy in the fall: Would it be so bad to choose the fellow who seems appealing to people outside the party tent?

So back to the NDP race. Reading about Thomas Mulcair's meeting with the Toronto Star editorial board, I couldn't help but wonder if something different may be starting to happen here.

That Mulcair said edgy, brash things was not shocking. That the challenges he threw down were mostly aimed at the feet of NDP members was what caught my attention.

He talked about fatigue with '50s boiler plate language of social democracy and admitted to meeting party members who fear the implications of winning power, believing it would be the result of an apocalyptic soul-selling. He challenged the orthodoxy of styling the NDP as the champion of "ordinary people," suggesting that good progressive ideas will be supported by more voters if they are not always freighted with class warfare branding.

On NAFTA, Mulcair dismissed the idea of scrapping the deal, said the oil sands shouldn't be shut down, and that tax increases would only be considered as a last resort in a government he would run.

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I'm not suggesting his positions would win broad acceptance; there are lots of aspects of them that would still give pause to centrist voters. But I do think his themes are challenging to NDP voters: He's leaving little doubt that if they want to go the next step as a party and seriously try to win an election, that's what he wants to do as well. Inferentially, he's asking them to consider if the same can be said for his opponents.

No doubt, in speaking out this way, Mulcair is taking a gamble in terms of the internal dynamics of this leadership race. But to borrow a term from René Lévesque, it may well be a beau risque for him – and an interesting argument for his party to consider.

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