After months of niceties, the NDP leadership campaign is getting nastier as one of the main contenders in the race to replace Jack Layton is attacking the party's Quebec lieutenant as a liability in the seat-rich province.
In an interview, long-time NDP strategist Brian Topp went on the offensive and directly took on NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, a former environment minister in the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest.
Mr. Topp said that party members will have to decide at the leadership convention on March 24 between his vision for a "clear and principled social-democratic" agenda and Mr. Mulcair's centrist approach to government.
"That may well be what the choice comes down to," Mr. Topp said. "[Mr. Mulcair]wants to move our party to the centre, which is entirely consistent with his background and his experience as a principal architect of the early Charest government, which was very conservative."
Mr. Topp said that with his background, Mr. Mulcair could constitute a setback for the NDP in Quebec, where the party won 59 of its 103 seats in the last election.
"I don't think [Mr. Mulcair's]approach is why Quebeckers sent 59 [NDP]MPs to Ottawa, or why they would do so again," said Mr. Topp, who has the backing of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow.
Mr. Mulcair's campaign team said he was not available for an interview.
Another contender in the NDP leadership race, MP Peggy Nash, said it's normal for candidates to try to differentiate themselves at the halfway point in the race, but that her goal is to eventually lead a party that includes both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Topp.
"My record is one of being a bridge-builder," she said in an interview. "I'm the candidate who can unite the caucus, unite the party and unite the country. That's what I'm offering."
NDP MP Paul Dewar added that his campaign will continue to focus on policy ideas, with more planks coming in early 2012 on the environment and families.
"That's what people are looking for in our party and in our country," he said, saying that personal attacks are more reminiscent of the Conservative government's way of doing politics.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said that he plans to shake up the campaign in 2012 with bold ideas, building on his proposal for increased cooperation between the NDP, the Liberal Party and the Green Party. While Mr. Cullen said he will not engage in personal attacks, he called on the party to find a way to make its five remaining debates more engaging.
"We can't go through four months of polite conversation about progressive politics, we need to challenge ourselves as a party," said Mr. Cullen, who said that he will continue to "stir the pot" in the new year with new policy proposals.
The NDP leadership race was launched last August when Mr. Layton died of cancer. The only debate that has been held so far was more of a get-to-know-you event for the candidates than an opportunity for them to square off on policy or leadership issues.
Still, the race recently got a boost when former NDP strategist Ian Capstick called on fringe candidates to drop out of the race to make it more interesting for Canadians. There were initially nine candidates in the race, but NDP MP Robert Chisholm of Nova Scotia went on to quit, citing his lack of fluency in French.
Mr. Topp suggested that not all of the eight candidates in the race offer the necessary ability to consolidate seats in Quebec and win new ones in the rest of Canada.
"That may narrow the number of candidates that members are going to consider," Mr. Topp said. "It comes down to a clash of visions, to some extent, and of course another key issue is whether you can do politics in Quebec in French."
Mr. Topp, who grew up in Quebec, has promised to eventually run for a seat in the province. He currently is based in Toronto, but he has also worked with NDP provincial wings in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
In an interview, MP Niki Ashton said the NDP must aim to take power in 2015 by keeping its seats in Quebec, and scoring a breakthrough in western Canada. She refused to get engaged in the internal bickering, saying that she aims to bring "new politics" to the party.