The convention is now Ignatieff's to lose

It's possible the Liberal front-runner might not even be on final ballot

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, November 15, 2006

In the annals of modern national leadership campaigns, there is only one instance in which the front-runner was overtaken on the final ballot - Claude Wagner by Joe Clark at the 1976 Conservative convention. There is no precedent for the front-runner not being on the final ballot.

Welcome to the Liberal convention of 2006, where Michael Ignatieff leads the first ballot, but might not be on the last one.

With 30.2 per cent of the elected delegates, Ignatieff has a clear 10-point lead over Bob Rae at 20.3 per cent, with Gerard Kennedy in third place at 17.3 per cent and Stephane Dion in fourth at 16 per cent. The also rans are Joe Volpe at 4.9 per cent, Ken Dryden at 4.3 per cent, Scott Brison at 3.5 per cent and Martha Hall Findley at 0.9 per cent.

From the beginning, the strategy of the Ignatieff team was to win the super-weekend delegate selection at the end of September, and build momentum through October by picking up ex-officio delegates - MPs, senators and the like who cast the remaining 20 per cent of the votes.

But while Ignatieff came out of super weekend 10 points ahead of Rae, he was 10 points short of what he needed to become the convention's inevitable choice.

The Ignatieff camp's momentum-driven strategy was slowed to a stop by a series of nasty October surprises, all of them self-generated, all of them reflecting badly on the candidate's judgment. Since his appearance on Radio-Canada's Tout le monde en parle on Thanksgiving weekend, the Ignatieff campaign has been running in reverse.

Trying to make amends for his statement over the summer that he wasn't losing any sleep over Lebanese civilian casualties in the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Ignatieff said war crimes were committed by the Israelis in the bombing of Qana, in which more than two dozen civilians were killed. No one in the Quebec media paid any attention because the statement reflected conventional francophone wisdom here. But when the transcript was translated into English, all hell broke loose in the Jewish community. Ignatieff subsequently issued a clarification that war crimes were committed by both sides.

Ignatieff's first mistake was going on a show that is known for its drive-by shootings. His second error was in somehow assuming his comments wouldn't be reported in English-speaking Canada. He compounded the mistake in his clarification by holding to his position that Israel was guilty of war crimes.

And then there's the Quebec nation thing, a controversy that began in September when his manifesto called for the recognition of Quebec as a nation within Canada, and burst into a firestorm when his team backed sending a resolution to that effect to the national convention.

Which, in the party of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, guarantees the biggest floor fight imaginable. An exciting leadership convention could be overshadowed by a debate over the one issue that can tear this party apart.

The party pros, the very automatic delegates Ignatieff was counting on to build his Big Mo, have been shaken by his constant lapses in judgment. This is the party of the Vince Lombardi slogan, that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Delegates are pledged to their candidates only for the first ballot, and some of the Ignatieff delegates are restless. This raises the possibility his numbers could actually shrink, rather than grow, after the first ballot. Should this prove to be the case, he would be the first front-runner to be off the final ballot.

The other members of the front four also have their challenges. Rae is still a transplant in this party, and should have been five points higher on the first ballot, to pull him closer to Ignatieff and further ahead of Kennedy and Dion. Kennedy is hobbled by his lack of French, lack of Quebec delegates and the perception, that at 44, he's the candidate of next time.

Dion now has a huge problem - recounts and mail ballots have dropped him from third to fourth place. He needs to pick up about 75 automatic delegates to overcome Kennedy in the last two weeks of the campaign. He must get to third place; he simply cannot win from fourth. Kennedy cannot move to him from ahead, only from behind.

But all three candidates at least have room to grow. Should two of them grow right past Ignatieff onto the final ballot, that would be an historic moment. And Ignatieff, to quote himself, would have a "depends on who's leader" decision to make about where and whether to throw his own support.

Of all the convention ups and downs, this is one nobody thought of in the beginning.

 
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