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Will Cullen be Mulcair's kingmaker in NDP leadership race?

According to one theory making the rounds, Tom Mulcair won't win the NDP leadership on March 24 because the Quebec MP isn't anybody's second choice. But that doesn't take into account the Nathan Cullen factor.

Although the odds do not favour Mr. Cullen winning the leadership, the British Columbia MP does have a substantial number of supporters that he could deliver to another candidate, and the logical choice is Mr. Mulcair. That just might be the frontrunner's path to victory.

By any reliable measure, Mr. Mulcair is leading the race to become the next Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. According to the latest figures, he has raised the most money ($205,000, compared to $182,000 for party strategist Brian Topp, who came in second). He is taking the greatest heat from other candidates and from an anonymous critic who launched the attack website – a sure sign that he's in front. A poll released by Ottawa MP Paul Dewar has Mr. Mulcair in first place, though short of the 50 per cent needed to win.

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But there is a strong feeling within the party that Mr. Mulcair may be too Quebec-centred, too centrist and perhaps too irascible to earn the votes of a majority of NDP members.

Mr. Dewar released the poll to show that he was the candidate who had the greatest growth potential. The preferential ballot that most members will use could deliver the leadership to whichever candidate has the most second-choice support. Other candidates – including Mr. Topp and Toronto MP Peggy Nash – maintain that they, not Mr. Dewar, are the favoured compromise candidate. One of them, goes the theory, could pip Mr. Mulcair at the post, just as Stéphane Dion defeated Michael Ignatieff at the Liberal convention in 2006.

But this line of reasoning fails to take into account Mr. Cullen's supporters, who are unlike anybody else's.

Mr. Cullen has attracted contributions from more donors (1,123) than any candidate except Mr. Mulcair (1,347). While some may support him because he is the only B.C. candidate, and the party is strong there, many others are behind him because of his proposal, denounced by all the other candidates, to co-operate with the Liberals by running only a single candidate, either Liberal or NDP, in Conservative-held ridings in the next election.

Because Cullen supporters are mostly for co-operation with the Liberals, they could move as a bloc in support of a second choice who is most likely to embrace that idea – if not now, then perhaps down the road. And that logical second choice is Mr. Mulcair, who was in Liberal Quebec Premier Jean Charest's cabinet before leaving and later joining the NDP.

There is another reason Mr. Mulcair's and Mr. Cullen's supporters should each pick the other as second choice. They are the two candidates who believe the NDP must recast itself as a pragmatic progressive party if it is to form government, either alone or in a coalition with the Liberals. The other candidates still seem to think that the NDP can be a party of both protest and power.

Neither Mr. Mulcair nor Mr. Cullen is likely to openly endorse the other, at least before the convention itself. They can only hope that their supporters draw the obvious conclusion. If they do, the odds favour Mr. Cullen putting Mr. Mulcair over the top, rather than the other way around. Of course, with up to a third of members not expected to vote until decision day itself, anything could happen on March 24.

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No doubt Mr. Dewar, Ms. Nash and Mr. Topp will argue the Cullen bloc should move to them. It's hard, though, to discern what that argument might be.

Follow John Ibbitson on Facebook and Twitter @JohnIbbitson

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