Thomas Mulcair finally started garnering public endorsements for his bid to replace Jack Layton as NDP leader, but Brian Topp remained the main contender as he racked up high-profile support from ex-Cree leader and newly elected MP Romeo Saganash.
Mr. Mulcair, who is the NDP deputy leader, started receiving endorsements Thursday morning after his campaign failed to gain any public traction in the first two days of the NDP pre-session caucus in Quebec City. On the last day of the three-day event, a number of newly elected MPs from Quebec offered their support to Mr. Mulcair, thanking him for his work for the party and urging him publicly to declare his intentions.
"I'd like to encourage him to come out and declare because I think that there's a groundswell of support for him," MP Jamie Nicholls said.
Half a dozen other NDP MPs publicly endorsed Mr. Mulcair, including Robert Aubin of Trois-Rivières, who credited Mr. Mulcair with bringing him into federal politics. MPs praised Mr. Mulcair for being the first New Democrat to win a seat in Quebec in a general election, and vaunted his ability to stand up to the Conservative government.
"He is the one who established a beachhead for the party in Quebec," MP Pierre Nantel said. "He stands up for Quebeckers, supported us in the election campaign, he listens and he is very solid."
Still, Mr. Mulcair's camp is aware he is facing an uphill battle, because his main support is located in Quebec, the province that is home, proportionally, to the lowest number of party members. In a one-member, one-vote campaign, Mr. Mulcair not only needs to win support on his home turf, but also in provinces such as British Columbia and Saskatchewan that are bastions of NDP support.
While the NDP caucus was meeting in Quebec City, Mr. Topp travelled to Vancouver and then to Montreal, meeting supporters and media. He has already obtained endorsements from former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and NDP MP Françoise Boivin, propelling him into the position of front-runner in the nascent leadership race.
His campaign received another boost when news came out he was about to receive the support of Mr. Saganash, an MP with a high profile in Canada's aboriginal community. Mr. Saganash had mused openly about running for the leadership, but he has told NDP officials he intends to come out in favour of Mr. Topp at an event in his riding on Friday.
Ms. Boivin and Mr. Saganash are among the better-known performers in the crop of rookie New Democrats from Quebec, with both of them having positions in the party's shadow cabinet.
Members of Mr. Topp's camp said they expect other supporters to "gradually" endorse the former NDP president, who has worked in the party's backrooms and the union movements since the 1980s.
B.C. MP Peter Julian, who is considering a leadership bid, picked up his first endorsement Thursday from Windsor MP Brian Masse.
"I think he'd make an excellent candidate," Mr. Masse said. "I think it's healthy to have a number of people in there."
Despite the intense leadership manoeuvring, interim leader Nycole Turmel insisted New Democrats won't be distracted from their Official Opposition duties in Parliament.
"In six short months, this party will elect a new leader. Canadians can expect a spirited and respectful debate about the new ideas that will move Canada forward," she said in a speech to caucus. "But Canadians can also be assured that the hard work won't wait six months. New Democrats know that with a Conservative government that has turned its back on families, the hard work starts now."
Ms. Turmel will force leadership candidates to drop their shadow cabinet posts, but she will allow Mr. Mulcair and Vancouver MP Libby Davies, if they run, to retain their designations as deputy leaders.
B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, a prospective candidate, said on Thursday that the situation could offer deputy leaders an advantage. As MPs clustered behind Ms. Turmel for a televised speech at the end of the caucus meeting, Mr. Mulcair and Ms. Davies were accorded prime positions directly behind the podium, in full view of television cameras.
With a report from The Canadian Press