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The NDP leadership race presents, in many respects, a déjà vu experience. For more than 30 years, candidates for the federal party's top job have claimed they could win support in Quebec, unite urban and rural constituencies across the country, and push the Liberals to the margins of national politics.

What makes this campaign distinctive is the candidacy of two women MPs, Peggy Nash and Niki Ashton, for the leadership of a party that has already had two female leaders. The NDP stands out in international terms not only for Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough's successive terms at the helm between 1989 and 2003, but also for B.C. MLA Rosemary Brown's path-breaking leadership run in 1975.

Moreover, the NDP is unusual for the sustained numerical presence of women MPs, a result, in part, of internal rules that mandate the recruitment of female candidates in winnable seats. After the 2006 federal election, for instance, women constituted more than 40 per cent of NDP MPs, compared with 11 per cent of the Conservative caucus.

Even with these remarkable strides, however, we can't assume that gender barriers have disappeared in the NDP. Ms. Nash, Ms. Ashton and their supporters need to pay close attention to two problems.

First, the federal party's weak standing after 1989 remains a powerful drag on women's upward mobility. Female candidates in 2012 need to present a compelling account of the foundational work carried out by party leaders, including Ed Broadbent, Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. McDonough, in the years before Jack Layton's 2003 election to the top post. In particular, female candidates need to acknowledge the contributions of each predecessor in a way that's both respectful and wide-eyed, in the sense that it addresses the anxiety party members feel about past electoral setbacks.

Second, Ms. Nash and Ms. Ashton must compete based on substance rather than style or tone. To date, both have focused their campaigns on matters of process rather than public policy: Ms. Nash stresses her skills as a bridge-builder who can bring together disparate elements of the party as well as the country, while Ms. Ashton says she'll practise a "new politics" – echoing a phrase that sounded considerably fresher when Kim Campbell used it in the 1993 federal Progressive Conservative leadership race.

The presence of high-profile female politicians has become so routine that these clichés risk undermining the candidates who use them. It's true that many female politicians, such as Alberta Premier Alison Redford, practise politics differently than their predecessors. Yet, they succeed not by asserting the existence of that distinctive style, but by demonstrating its tangible impact on policies that affect the lives of citizens and improve party standings in public opinion polls.

Ms. Nash and Ms. Ashton can draw on extensive organizational research that documents the greater willingness of female managers to transcend traditional hierarchies, and thus develop strong teams that reach decisions based on consensus rather than conflict. Framing their own backgrounds in light of this literature has the advantage of not just drawing attention to the interpersonal qualities of other candidates, but also shining a spotlight on how relevant each candidate's skill set is to present challenges facing the party.

In the realm of politics, though, leadership choices largely come down to judging which candidate offers the best chance of electoral success. For Ms. Nash and Ms. Ashton, saying they'll do politics differently is insufficient to win that race.

Sylvia Bashevkin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.