In 1996, the marathon vote that led to Dalton McGuinty becoming leader of Ontario's Liberal party seemed to take forever and surprised many.

His resignation Monday evening as Ontario premier seemed sudden, and also caught nearly everyone off-guard.

"I'd characterize it as a bolt from the grey," says Liberal strategist and author John Duffy, borrowing an old Winston Churchill phrase. 

As Duffy sees it, most people at Queen's Park probably understood that a decision was coming on whether McGuinty would try for a fourth term or not. But, "the precise timing of it was a remarkably close-kept secret … very well-executed, if I may say so, from a connoisseur's point of view."

Though McGuinty still looks young, he is actually older, at 57, and served as party leader longer, for 16 years, than former Progressive Conservative leader Bill Davis, who also resigned relatively suddenly in 1985 after 14 years at the helm, former Liberal minister Sean Conway, a respected veteran of Queen's Park politics, reminded a TVOntario audience the other night.

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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty caught everyone off-guard with his sudden resignation announcement on Monday evening at the Ontario legislature. The Ontario Liberal Party now joins its federal and Quebec counterparts in seeking a new leader. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

Conway also said he expects the leadership to be decided in three months, followed by an election next spring, which means that Ontario Liberals — a mainstay of the party's national governing ambitions — now find themselves wrestling with not just one leadership decision, but two.

"You do have an extraordinary moment now when the leaderships of the three largest Liberal parties in the country are in play simultaneously —in Ontario, in Quebec [following Jean Charest's defeat last month] and at the federal level," Duffy says.

"It amounts to a moment of redefinition for the Liberal project in Canada at a very interesting time."

Study in contrasts

When it comes to the federal and Ontario Liberal races, however, the starting points couldn't be more different.

What's more, the different formats for the two contests will shape not only who runs for the leadership but the strategy necessary to win, and perhaps even some of the platform. 

The next federal Liberal leader will be chosen by not only party members but also a new category of Liberal "supporters" that's open to people with a more casual affiliation.

The wide-open process is intended to inject energy into a machine that stalled on its last time out, this time by moving power out of the previously-closed shops of Liberal riding associations and into as large a public arena as they can build.

Other than Justin Trudeau, only a couple of well-established MPs appear interested in running. There is, however, a lengthier list of unelected party activists making exploratory moves, thinking this format gives them a shot.

None of those, however, are household names.

Time is on their side: the next federal election isn't expected until 2015, meaning the new leader should have two years to establish a voice and a platform before voters render judgment.

By contrast, the next Ontario Liberal leader will be chosen in a process almost like a papal conclave — a now old-fashioned delegated convention.

Only current provincial party members will be eligible to be selected as delegates to the convention, based on their support for the particular leadership camps.

Once in the hall, anything can happen after the first ballot. But the final call will be up to the party's relatively chosen few.

'A family conversation'

"It's fundamental," Duffy says of the difference between the two processes.

The federal race will require a lot of technology and broad messaging across large swaths of political territory, he says, while the provincial race will be more of a "family conversation."

But it is also a family conversation that has become imbued, through McGuinty's fight to curtail the province's burgeoning deficit (and with what has been going on next door in Quebec with its students and economy), with some of the big public policy issues of the day — restructuring health care and post-secondary education and imposing public sector wage controls.

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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty walks out of the government caucus room with his wife Terri after telling his MPPs he's stepping down. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

Whatever the outcome of the policy debate, the provincial party needs to emerge from its leadership process with a polished message, Duffy says. The next Ontario leader will head straight into the fire: leading, and having to unite, a cabinet clinging to minority government status, and likely headed soon for a tough electoral fight, or at least the weekly threat of one.

Marie Bountrogianni, a former McGuinty cabinet minister, now a visiting professor at Ryerson University, says the premier's leave-taking was very pragmatic.

"It was a logical move," she says, characteristic of the man himself. "This minority government was not working. He knew things were not working. So this was a way to help his party."

Bountrogianni also suggests that whomever succeeds McGuinty is not going to have an easy time of it.

"Right now some of the prospective front-runners are painted by some pretty ugly brushes," she says, suggesting that while they are good people they are scarred by past controversies.

And this past controversies will surely affect the dynamics of how they try to appeal to voters.

"Successful renewals while in office are unusual," Duffy says. "It's a hard thing to do. There are more Arthur Meighens and Frank Millers than there are Louis St. Laurents and Pierre Trudeaus in this game.

"Not everybody can be [Alberta Premier] Alison Redford."

Will McGuinty run federally?

For the federal leader, what lies ahead is a rather thankless task in the short-term: rebuilding grassroots support, developing and selling new policy and overcoming the new strength of the NDP to become the front-ranked alternative to the Conservatives.

Would McGuinty, who mentioned his family when explaining his resignation Monday night, even want this gig?

"It's not unusual to have the people around you urge you to go the next step. That happens to a lot of politicians and former politicians," Bountrogianni says.

But just because he has a potential team ready doesn't mean he's decided to run. Bill Davis felt the same pressures and balked at running federally, and Canadian electoral history has not been kind to provincial premiers trying to make the jump to federal politics.

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Federal Liberal leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau spoke to high school students at an event Tuesday in Halifax. He's targeting younger and previously unengaged supporters in his leadership bid. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

To avoid a coronation — something federal Liberals are near-unanimous in saying they don't want — the federal race will need to find strong contenders to run against Justin Trudeau. It also needs candidates who reflect Ontario's strategic importance to the party's future.

However, if McGuinty is to be that guy, "he would have to do so fairly quickly," says Duffy, adding "he would certainly be a very formidable candidate for any office he chose to seek."

On Monday night, McGuinty suggested he was willing to stay on as premier until the new leader is chosen, which doesn't necessarily sound like someone who's deep into preparations for the federal race. On top of that, his brother David, currently the federal MP for the same Ottawa South constituency, is rumoured in some circles to be considering a federal leadership bid, something that certainly wouldn't happen if the premier jumped in.

As McGuinty's intergovernmental affairs minister on the national stage, Bountrogianni saw her former boss acting in a way that would be consistent with someone at least interested in federal politics.

"He was very respectful [toward other provinces]

in how he defended Ontario," she says. "That's important if you have federal aspirations."

But would the party want him, recent provincial baggage and all?

McGuinty's strategic decision to prorogue the legislature has drawn critics who feel the province's democratic body should not be suspended just because his party is picking a new leader.

It also stands in contrast to Justin Trudeau's efforts towards a new style of open, grassroots politics.

Bountrogianni, who expects to be active in one or both leadership races as a volunteer, introduced Trudeau at an event in Hamilton last week.

She likes Trudeau's support for issues that are important to her, like mental health and youth engagement. But she also sees a McGuinty candidacy as a positive thing.

"He would bring many years of governing experience with him. And he'd also bring a team with him. When you've won as many elections as he has you've got a team. And you've got a machine," she says.

Bountrogianni co-chaired the 1996 leadership race when McGuinty came up from fourth place to win on the fifth ballot, literally in the middle of the night.

"While yes I'm a big fan of Justin Trudeau," she says, "I would never, ever underestimate Dalton McGuinty."