Sheila Copps says she's running for president of the Liberal Party and she wouldn't stop Bob Rae from running as leader, despite rules that say the interim leader can't join the race.

Rae, the party's interim leader, took on the job despite the party's decision that whoever filled the interim role wouldn't be allowed to run for the leader's position.

Copps, a former deputy prime minister, told Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics, that it's important for the party to have a broadly based leadership race.

"If Bob made a commitment [not to run], he can answer to the voters in the leadership race on that commitment, but the more candidates we have out there pursuing the opportunity to lead the Liberal Party, the better," Copps said.

But the party's president alone can't change the rule that bars Rae from running for the leadership, and would need the support of the rest of the party's executive board.

Party plans

Copps says she's opposed to merging the NDP and Liberal parties, despite comments Tuesday by her former boss, Jean Chrétien, that it could happen.

"I have fought the NDP in the trenches," Copps told Solomon. "At some point, there are differences between and amongst parties."

Copps says the party needs a defence fund to counter attacks from the Conservatives and setting one up would be one of her priorities as president.

"I want to set up a Liberal defence fund to counter the attacks on us early and often. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has run vicious campaigns against [Stéphane] Dion and Michael Ignatieff and we've been silent.

"We've taken the high road, but the reality is that his advertising had a devastating impact."

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Former Hamilton-area MP and deputy prime minister Sheila Copps ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2003, losing to Paul Martin. She has announced she is seeking the party presidency. (Canadian Press)

Copps, a former MP for Hamilton East for 20 years and a former deputy prime minister, formally launched her campaign for party president Wednesday.

In an interview with CBC News, Copps said Liberals are at a crossroads, as is the country. "I want to be part of the solution. I can't watch a great party disappear and see a country folded into two extremes."

She said her priorities as candidate for Liberal Party president are membership, morale and money.

Wants a million members voting

On membership, Copps explained her ambitious goal of having a million people vote for the party's next leader in 2013. 

"I want to see a million person march. We need to modernize processes to see that memberships are free and available by internet and when they do have the next convention, I want to see it run like a [U.S.]

primary where you get people voting over a number of weeks and see interest mount."

Copps said having people in rural areas travel long distances to get to a polling booth isn't fair and she wants to wipe away all those disadvantages. In short, Copps said, the party has to move away from the old ways of doing things.

How does she plan to combat the impressions of those who associate her with the past? Copps calls herself a techno-geek who loves technology. A recent convert to Twitter, she says she was the second MP with a BlackBerry, second only to Andrew Telegdi, the former MP for the riding that is home to BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion.

"I'm 58, I'm not out to pasture yet. This job has a short learning curve. The country is wide and vast and huge and you don't have time to learn on this job.  I know people who have experience with political organizing all across the country."

Copps left Parliament Hill in 2004 after losing the Liberal nomination for her newly-redistributed Hamilton riding.

Asked what she's learned in the last seven years of private life that she feels would help make her a good Liberal Party president, Copps responded, "How to get fit! I lost 30 pounds and I play tennis." 

"John Turner always told me to stay fit and I never paid attention. So one of the things I've done is I've had a more balanced life and eaten better, and I hope to carry my tennis racquet with me as I travel across the country."

Hartling also in the running

Also travelling across the country right now in his bid to become Liberal president is Ron Hartling, former riding president for Kingston and the Islands. 

Hartling doesn't miss an opportunity to remind people that on May 2, his riding was one of only two communities to elect new Liberal MPs and one of only three ridings to increase the Liberal vote.

"I can create winning conditions," Hartling told CBC News, as he explained how he spent two years after the 2008 election revamping the riding's organization while doing relentless outreach. 

Currently on a 30-day, 12,000-km car trip to 80 ridings across Western Canada, Hartling said the next party president should be someone who represents the membership, listens to what they say and acts on their concerns.

"In the past, the national president almost always was a connected corporate lawyer or senator with a high profile who could bring in the big corporate donations. That era has passed. The only way we can hope to match the Conservatives on fundraising is to engage our members, because no one can give us more than $1,100."

First out of the gate in this race, Hartling said he might not be well-known to the public but he's well-known to Liberals across Canada as the instigator and administrator of the party's online grassroots community discussion forum, En Famille. 

Hartling said he spent a month writing a strategic plan for the party that has already been downloaded by riding executives across the country. 

He said his "big five" priorities are, improving the party's governance, re-inventing the party as an effective volunteer-based organization, working with members to develop an inspiring and coherent suite of policies and strategic communications.  Hartling says most people don't realize the party president is an unpaid position. 

"At t his juncture where we're at a low ebb, we've got four years to get our act together. I believe the party president has got to be willing to put fulltime into an unpaid position, which I do."

It is also widely believed that former Montreal-area MP Alexandra Mendes will also join the race.