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The race to become Montreal's mayor officially kicked off last Friday. All three major contenders have at least one point in common: Each has come out against the Quebec government's proposed Charter of Values and intends to maintain the right of all Montrealers to wear religious symbols (that is, if the government allows municipalities to opt out of the future law).

The candidate who knows more about the city is Project Montreal leader Richard Bergeron, an environmentalist who's been sitting on the Montreal council for eight years.

The candidate who knows more about governance is Marcel Côté, an economist and founder of the consulting firm Secor, who's been an adviser to several first ministers, but is a newcomer to active politics.

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The candidate who knows more about people is former Liberal MP Denis Coderre, who's currently running his ninth election campaign with gusto and the know-how of a seasoned politician. This is why the smart money is on him.

Mr. Bergeron has certainly matured since he first jumped into the municipal arena with incendiary comments that made him appear like a loose cannon – if not a bit of a loony. In 2005, he wrote that 9/11 was a "joke," a pretext to allow the "mafia around Bush" to take control of the Gulf oil reserves. He has said that he smokes to diminish his respiratory capacity, otherwise he would run too fast and hurt himself. He's professed an obsessive, personal hatred of cars and their drivers.

In 2009, his party gained full control of Le Plateau, a gentrified central district with the highest concentration of leftists and bobos (bourgeois bohemians) in the province. Le Plateau became a haven for cyclists, but a nightmare for the local shopkeepers and Montreal drivers.

Mr. Bergeron is a hard worker. He now avoids controversial statements and has improved the quality of his team (Stéphane Dion's wife, political science professor Janine Krieber, is running as a Project councillor). But he is still considered a rigid ideologue.

Mr. Côté personally knows everybody who counts in provincial politics and the business world, but he's totally unknown to ordinary Montrealers. Despite this handicap, he allowed himself to spend time in Europe for the best part of the summer, while Mr. Coderre was already busy hitting the streets and shaking hands.

Mr. Côté might be, on paper, the best candidate to reorganize Montreal's defective management structure, but he's not a good public speaker and he comes across as shy and relatively distant. When he tries to be punchy, he overdoes it. As a panelist on public affairs programs, he blurted out that low electricity tariffs were "a crime against humanity" and that even the mafia was "more democratic" than the "red square" student movement.

Recently, he told Le Devoir that he would only do one mandate, and that, failing to be elected, he has "other things to do that are as exciting as [being mayor of] Montreal."

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By contrast, Mr. Coderre – at 50, the youngest of the three major contenders – is brimming with energy and enthusiasm. In his case, the recognition factor could not be higher. He's the ultimate populist. Everybody seems to know him and those who don't are quickly drawn to him by his happy-go-lucky smile, easy jokes and warm, firm handshake. His handicap comes from too much experience in politics – he has to fight allegations of funding irregularities – but he comes across as someone who could be a tireless and aggressive champion for Montreal.

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