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Liberal MP Justin Trudeau talks to reporters outside the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Wednesday February 8. 2012. (Fred Chartrand)
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau talks to reporters outside the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Wednesday February 8. 2012. (Fred Chartrand)

Lawrence Martin

Justin Trudeau is the best hope for Liberals – and Conservatives Add to ...

Bob Rae will be given the go-ahead to run when Liberals set their leadership convention rules Wednesday. Then the great guessing game will commence. Will Justin Trudeau, who polls show to be clearly the most popular Liberal in the country, enter the race?

As of the moment, his answer is no, not this time around. “I am under a lot of pressure to reconsider,” he told a Winnipeg audience Sunday. “For now, I haven’t.”

But the pressure will intensify. Not this time? That sounds like next time. But there’s the counterargument. Given the state of the party, given that progressive voters could well flock to the NDP as the only hope to stop Stephen Harper, will there be a realistic next time? Or will the Grits be too far down to rise again – even under a standard-bearer with the Trudeau name.

Seasoned pro Bob Rae is a good bet to win the leadership if Justin Trudeau stays out. But he’s in his 60s and Liberals are looking for renewal. There’s a generation out there – students, greenies, large numbers chafing at social inequality – waiting to be tapped. The current party leaders are all of the post-50 set. They aren’t doing much tapping.

Mr. Trudeau is tantalizing, but whether he is galvanizing is another question. His entry in the race would set fire to Canadian politics. It would bring forward new forces. It would, given Pierre Trudeau’s legacy, polarize the debate even more so than it is already polarized. It would scare New Democrats, especially given Mr. Trudeau’s Quebec base. It would vault the Liberal contest into prime time for a year to come. And here’s another thing. It would be a welcome development for the Harper Conservatives.

Their interest is in keeping the progressive side of the political spectrum as divided as possible. Justin Trudeau is their best hope of doing that. In hoisting Liberal fortunes, he could generate an even split in support between Grits and New Democrats.

His entry would rouse the Conservative base like it has rarely been roused before. Right-siders go into spasms at the mention of the Trudeau name. Their attitude was on display when Justin won the charity boxing match. Nah, they whined, it didn’t take much courage to do it – as if Justin being splattered all over the ring wouldn’t have been a brutal humiliation for the Trudeau name. No, it didn’t show he was as much the father’s son as the mother’s. Nah, it wasn’t a defining moment, as if the man-in-the-ring photo wouldn’t accompany Trudeau media clips by the score.

Pierre Trudeau beat back the right with wit and condescension, intelligence and good fortune. But with Stephen Harper as bulldozer operator, Canadian conservatism has much more power than it did back in those times.

Franklin Roosevelt once said of his opponents: “They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” Justin Trudeau may have the heady combination of external charisma and internal strength, but we don’t know whether he has the discipline, the knowledge, the moxie to face down the mega-ton of malice that would come his way.

He would first have to win the Liberal race, which would be no sure thing. But in the end, given Mr. Rae’s inability to increase the Liberals’ poll standing and given the priority of party renewal, the Liberals would likely gamble on a new face.

Star power is in short supply at the federal level. The latest Ipsos-Reid poll shows Mr. Harper with a 28 per cent positive-impression rate and 48 per cent negative. NDP leader Tom Mulcair was 19 per cent positive and 20 per cent negative. On the positive-impression side for the Grits, Mr. Rae received 18 per cent, Mr. Trudeau 35 per cent.

The combination of name and all-star aura make him the best hope for a Liberal Party revival. But his ascendancy would come at the expense of the NDP. Canadian progressives – until such time as a merger happens – would still be in a bind.

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