Liberal leadership now entering horse-race mode

Too close to call but Dion shaping up to be kingmaker on second ballot

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, September 27, 2006

As the Liberals complete delegate selection this week for their leadership convention, polls of party members indicate Bob Rae has the momentum to overtake Michael Ignatieff on the second ballot and that Stephane Dion will be the kingmaker on the third.

The Liberals are finally moving into the horse-race phase of the campaign, and it shapes up as exciting and too close to call. An EKOS poll of party rank and file for the Toronto Star and La Presse on Monday showed Ignatieff and Rae tied with 25 per cent support on the first ballot, with Dion third at 17 per cent, narrowly ahead of Gerard Kennedy at 16 per cent.

But the story line of the poll is who is second choice on subsequent ballots. The answer is Rae at 27 per cent, Dion at 27 per cent, Ignatieff at 19 per cent, and Kennedy at only 10 per cent.

Do the math. Ignatieff doesn't have anything like the first-ballot strength - north of 40 per cent on the first ballot - to become the inevitable choice of the convention on the second. Dion is going to be kingmaker, but can't be king unless he can grow to second place on the first ballot. It's conceivable but unlikely that the Liberals will elect another leader from Quebec. Alternation - l'alternance - is a deep-rooted tradition in the party, and it's not Quebec's turn.

This party needs a leader from Ontario. Kennedy, the former provincial education minister, was positioned in the early going as the candidate of the next generation, who at 44 would take an expected loss in the next election, but bring the party back to power in the one after that. It was interesting spin, but Kennedy has underperformed in the leadership debates, and his command of French has, to put it kindly, been oversold.

That leaves Ignatieff and Rae, and all the momentum is breaking Rae's way - he might even be peaking too early, and a stop-Rae movement might be Dion's best hope of overtaking him.

All three candidates who have dropped out to date, the latest being Hedy Fry on Monday, have gone to Rae. Other second tier candidates, notably Joe Volpe and Scott Brison have expressed sharp criticism of Ignatieff. Volpe sounded downright bitter and twisted the other day when he said Ignatieff's people had also signed up members who were, uh, dead. That leaves only Ken Dryden, Martha Hall Findley and Kennedy who might move to Ignatieff.

As the selection of 6,000 delegates is completed this week, they will be committed to their candidates on the first ballot, but freed up in a delegated convention after that. The Ignatieff campaign includes some of the party's best organizers, including David Smith in Toronto and Denis Coderre in Montreal. But there's been nothing very subtle about their front-runner strategy - the bus is leaving, be on it, or be under it. That works at 40 per cent on the first ballot, but not at 25. And this EKOS survey was an impact poll, more than a snapshot, it's a momentum builder inside the party. Liberals now know who's got the Mo, and it isn't Ignatieff.

But just as Liberals try to turn the page and move on from the sponsorship scandal, and the civil war between the Chretien and Martin clans, there have been new ethical embarrassments around Volpe's campaign, and a fresh outbreak of hostilities with the publication of two books by Chretien loyalists Eddie Goldenberg and Alfonso Gagliano, both of which take Paul Martin down hard.

It was bad enough when Volpe was accepting campaign donations from his friends of behalf of their children, now he's been caught signing up dead people.

Gagliano's book, Les Corridors du Pouvoir, is nothing less than a settling of scores with Martin, for firing him as ambassador to Denmark for his role in the sponsorship scandal and later banning him from the Liberal Party for life. Far from having the decency to disappear, Gagliano has returned as an unwelcome ghost of Christmas past, haunting the party at the very moment it is trying to turn the page. His reappearance as an author promoting a book gave the TV networks permission to reroll all the tape from the Gomery commission.

Goldenberg's memoir is certainly a more balanced portrait of power by Jean Chretien's former senior adviser, later his chief of staff and closest associate for 30 years. But Goldenberg, too, has accounts to settle with Martin, questioning his loyalty, his judgment and his leadership skills. Between them, the two books have torn open all the old wounds of the very Canadian coup that saw the ouster of a sitting three-term prime minister.

Quelle nightmare.

 
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