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In just four months, the NDP sets down a major marker for its future – whether to keep Tom Mulcair as party leader.

The leadership review vote is in April. These confrontations can be divisive, if not cutthroat. Think of the donnybrook in the Liberal ranks occasioned by the John Turner review in 1986, which he won. Or the upheaval in the Tory party a few years earlier when a review decapitated Joe Clark.

The New Democrats have just experienced what is arguably the most crushing disappointment in their party's history. They went from first place, from the verge of victory, from the Promised Land within their grasp to start an election campaign, to third place to finish it.

An ongoing internal evaluation of the free fall is finding many members shell-shocked and bitter. The party now has to go back to the drawing board, said Charlie Angus, the popular MP from Timmins-James Bay. "We have to start a complete rebuilding of the party, the brand and our identity." Mr. Angus said he still has "incredible respect for Tom Mulcair." His review vote will depend on the ideas he will put forward for a rebuild.

The review bar will likely be set high, with Mr. Mulcair requiring a confidence vote of about 75 per cent to survive. Of a half-dozen senior party figures I interviewed in recent days none would state publicly that they will be supporting Mr. Mulcair. That doesn't mean they won't be with him come the actual review vote. But he faces an uphill fight.

The party has no shortage of high-quality potential successors. The names most often mentioned are Nathan Cullen from British Columbia, Quebec's Alexandre Boulerice and Megan Leslie from Nova Scotia. A big question is whether any of them will make public a leadership challenge before review vote day.

With Justin Trudeau's Liberals sucking up all the oxygen on the centre-left, the NDP, as Mr. Angus suggests, faces an identity crisis, one which Mr. Mulcair will have to address. He couldn't beat the Liberals at their own game. So what strategy does he choose?

Instead of forever migrating to the centre, the New Democrats could return to their more social-democratic roots. They could go Scandinavian. They could advocate policies that promote full employment, free university tuition, that focus on the lower class, on a restoration of the tax base so as to facilitate social equality. It's an alternative. Whether it's an advisable one is another question.

With Mr. Trudeau having brought in generational change, another difficulty baby-boomer Mulcair faces is age. He is 61. Would-be successors are much younger. One party member said Mr. Mulcair could help reinvent himself by losing 20 pounds, shaving off his beard and getting a new tailor.

Niki Ashton, the 33-year-old multilingual MP from northern Manitoba, played down the importance of age. She cited Bernie Sanders, the candidate for the Democratic nomination south of the border. He is 74 and is a terrific candidate, said Ms. Ashton, with broad appeal to American youth. She would not say which way she is leaning on the review vote. Nor would former party leader and elder statesman Ed Broadbent.

New Democrats are angered at their campaign's failure to communicate its progressive message. They feel their platform was more progressive than that of Liberals but that Mr. Trudeau outfoxed them. "We got our asses kicked on comms," said one disgruntled member.

But many give Mr. Mulcair credit for showing principle in his costly stance on the niqab in the campaign. Many are of the view that there wasn't much he could have done to ward off the Trudeau wave. Many view him – and I share the view – as one of the strongest opposition leaders to come along in decades.

It's hard to throw a leader with so many qualities overboard. But unless he can offer a convincing path forward for New Democrats in the next few months, it's a fate that could very well await him.

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