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Liberal MP Marc Garneau gestures during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 13, 2013, to announce his withdrawal from the Liberal leadership race.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Marc Garneau is an outstanding Canadian, soldier, astronaut and a proven leader. His withdrawal as a candidate for the federal Liberal leadership leaves the campaign poorer – a strange predicament for such a major political party in Canada's history.

Justin Trudeau, for his part, has shown himself to be an effective leadership candidate, but there is still a month to go before the vote. He could have benefited from the continuing challenge of such a formidable and substantial rival.

Mr. Garneau's decision deserves respect, however. He wanted to become the Liberal leader; he did not choose to assert his ego until the bitter end, or stay in the race as a kind of trainer to give Mr. Trudeau some further rigorous exercise. As he said on Wednesday, he had looked at the polling numbers, and, being an engineer, he respects mathematics. He became certain he could not win.

Mr. Trudeau, as Mr. Garneau said, "is surprising a lot of people," and he has demonstrated his impressive ability to rally many supporters. But while Mr. Garneau endorsed the frontrunner, he did not quite withdraw his previous criticisms of Mr. Trudeau's inexperience and his comparative weakness in policy.

As the now almost inevitable next Liberal leader, Mr. Trudeau has a great responsibility. The Liberals cannot be dismissed as a mere third party. Even if Thomas Mulcair has, in some respects, edged the NDP into a degree of moderation, he is still far from establishing his party as a left-of-centre alternative to the Conservatives. The Liberals continue to have the greater potential as a party of the broad centre, and as an acceptable governing party.

With Mr. Garneau gone, Joyce Murray now appears to be in second place to Mr. Trudeau, but her proposed alliance with the NDP and the Greens would take the Liberals too far left. Still, it is good that she is helping keep this a contested race, along with the former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon, Martha Hall Findlay and others.

As for Mr. Garneau, it is welcome that he is staying in politics. He will be a great asset on the Liberals' front bench.