Long-shots plunge into Liberal leadership race

Justin Trudeau's presumed lock on the federal Liberal leadership race has scared off some would-be big-name rivals, but other candidates like Deborah Coyne aren't letting Trudeau's celebrity or the party's travails deter them.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau is seen here announcing he will seek the leadership of the party. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A clutch of little-known long-shots is rushing in where Liberal luminaries fear to tread.

Justin Trudeau's presumed lock on the federal Liberal leadership race has scared off some would-be big-name rivals; the party's dismal third-place standing has rendered the top job unappealing to others.

But some virtual unknowns aren't letting Trudeau's celebrity or the party's travails deter them.

Deborah Coyne, lawyer, public policy consultant and mother of Trudeau's half-sister, Ottawa lawyer David Bertschi and Vancouver Crown prosecutor Alex Burton are already touring the country, although the race doesn't officially begin until Nov. 14.

Toronto lawyer George Takach has assembled a campaign team, led by veteran organizer Mark Marissen, who orchestrated Stephane Dion's successful come-from-behind bid for the leadership in 2006.

A number of others are still mulling over their chances and could yet give the line-up some heft, including Liberal House leader Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon and Vancouver MP Joyce Murray.

Former MP Martha Hall Findlay, who finished last in the 2006 contest, is determined to take another run -- provided she can pay off some $18,000 in debts remaining from her first stab at the party's top spot. She is feverishly trying to raise money.

But, apart from Trudeau, most Liberal notables are taking a pass.

Erstwhile Liberal stars like former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna and one-time deputy prime minister John Manley have ruled themselves out, as have most sitting MPs, including New Brunswick's Dominic LeBlanc and Nova Scotia's Scott Brison and Geoff Regan. Not to mention Bob Rae, the party's interim leader.

The dearth of star power has some Liberals casting about for a heavyweight who could pose a serious challenge to the Trudeau juggernaut.

Few high-profile candidates

There's a Facebook campaign to draft Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, despite his public denial of interest last spring.

It's supported by the likes of Tim Murphy, one-time chief of staff to former prime minister Paul Martin.

And there's been increasing buzz of late about a campaign to draft Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, although he too has repeatedly ruled himself out in the past.

So why would a bunch of unknowns jump in when so many higher-profile heavyweights won't?

Certainly, they have less to lose. Whereas a star candidate risks diminishing his or her reputation by finishing badly, a little-known long-shot can gain profile and kudos just by running a credible, if losing, campaign.

Hall Findlay, for instance, parlayed her spunky 2006 campaign into the offer of a safe Toronto seat, which she won in a 2008 byelection. She was re-elected in the subsequent general election that year but was defeated in the 2011 rout, which reduced the Liberals to a third-party rump.

Then, of course there's always the chance of scoring a stunning upset.

Dion did it in 2006 and, this time, the party has adopted a new process for selecting a leader that is even more encouraging to the proverbial dark horses, lessening the need for big financial and organizational muscle and doing away with the traditional delegated convention altogether.

This time, all party members -- as well as anyone willing to register as a Liberal supporter, without having to pay a membership fee -- will be entitled to vote in their ridings for the candidate of their choice. The results will be weighted to give each riding equal clout.

New voting rules

Those two changes "mean it won't work out the way people think," predicts Stephen Carter, who orchestrated the come-from-behind victories of Naheed Nenshi and Calgary's last mayoral contest and Alison Redford in the last Alberta election.

"This is the most interesting race in Canada right now."

Given his success with long-shot campaigns, it's little wonder Carter has been contacted by some putative Liberal leadership contenders, including Hall Findlay and Garneau. He is not, so far, involved.

Still, he's made it clear through blunt posts on Twitter that he thinks Trudeau, is "too shallow to be a leader" that "media blowhards" are "idiots" for assuming it will be a cake walk for the telegenic, eldest son of former prime minister and Liberal icon Pierre Trudeau.

Burton says the new process allows "a candidate like me, somebody who is, you know, an outsider, not part of that Ottawa bubble, to be competitive."

He launched Friday a five-week, cross-country tour in a motor home, planning to visit nooks and crannies that rarely see a Liberal. He is well aware that ridings with a few dozen Liberal supporters will be just as influential in determining the outcome of the race as those with thousands.

"I think it makes it easier for somebody who is prepared to do the heavy lifting and go to all those places and talk and listen to people there."

The stiff $75,000 entry fee set by the party -- due in three instalments by mid-January -- may yet deter one or more of the long-shot contenders.

In the meantime, Burton, like Hall Findlay and Takach, is positioning himself as the voice of so-called blue Liberals or business Liberals, emphasizing fiscal responsibility and prudent economic management.

And like all the dark horses, he is promising to bring substance to the debate -- implicitly suggesting that Trudeau does not.