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Candidate Brian Topp speaks at the NDP leadership convention at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto, Ont. Friday, March 23, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Brian Topp asked the question that matters most at this NDP convention: Can the federal NDP win power by holding to its social democratic principles, or must it sell out? Mr. Topp said he would not sell out.

"I'm a proud New Democrat and an unapologetic social democrat," he told NDP members in Toronto on Friday. In an obvious dig at the centrist tendencies of rival Thomas Mulcair, he said New Democrats should offer Canadians a government "worth electing."

The backroom strategist knows he's an underdog. He knows Mr. Mulcair, a Montreal MP who can take some credit for the breakthrough in Quebec in the last election, is favoured to win.

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But Mr. Mulcair's opponents fear he would tamp down the adjective in social democracy in an effort to defeat the Conservatives, and they are banking on this gathering of true believers to unite around an alternative.

Mr. Topp, who has the support of the grey eminences of the New Democratic Party, put himself forward as that alternative in a presentation that featured a strong, professional video filled with endorsements from the likes of Ed Broadbent and Roy Romanow, and a speech that clearly differentiated his campaign from that of Mr. Mulcair.

Other candidates also promise to take up the standard of defending social democracy. But Ottawa MP Paul Dewar and Toronto MP Peggy Nash seem to have faded in recent weeks, and the shoe-string nature of B.C. MP Nathan Cullen's campaign emerged in a speech so low-key this writer only belatedly realized he was up on stage talking.

Mr. Mulcair did himself no favours in his own address on Friday. Multiple videos, multiple endorsements and a procession of drummers ate up so much of his allotted time that he had to race through his text, making it impossible to grasp much of what he said.

None of this may matter. About 57,000 of the 130,000 eligible voters have already cast ballots. Many others might not vote at all. And it's impossible to know whether the 4,600 people registered at the convention or those who watched on TV were swayed by the speeches.

After it was all over, a poll of members standing in line to cast their ballots revealed few minds were changed. If anyone seemed to have impressed the crowd, it was Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, who has no hope of winning.

But if nothing else happened on Friday, Mr. Topp at least reminded NDPers, as he has throughout this campaign, that principle may not be worth sacrificing for the sake of power.

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He thinks they can have both.

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