Trudeau seen by senior Liberals as a risk worth taking

Justin Trudeau's leadership bid is risky, say senior Liberal strategists, and more than one has used the phrase "Hail Mary Pass." Is the Liberal Party desperate or looking for generational change?

'If ... politics has become like American Idol, then why not pick a guy who can win American Idol?'

Justin Trudeau's leadership bid is risky, say senior Liberal strategists, and more than one has used the phrase "Hail Mary Pass."

Yet these strategists agree he is so well financed, and has so much of the kind of star quality that no-one else can match, the only reason a strong candidate would run against him is the hope that he'll stumble and the party will need someone else to turn to.

They all agree that recent coronations in the party have been disastrous, but one Liberal asks if this isn't more like Trudeau  stepping up for a job no-one wants. "It's just not that appealing a job to be leader of a third party. So you're having a hard time persuading serious players to do it."

Justin Trudeau, who is expected to announce his run for leadership of the Liberal Party this week, speaks at Free the Children's We Day event in Toronto Sept. 28. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

Strategists concede that Trudeau is dismissed by the political elite, "the chattering classes" and some of the public as well, yet all praise his "x factor" charisma. "It's unbelievable how many people this guy can attract in a room. There's some hope in that," says one.

"In a nasty way, if you're going to say politics has become like American Idol, then why not pick a guy who can win American Idol?" says another.

They are effusive about his gifts. "Justin's brand is very much his ability to leverage the generational change. He's 20 years younger than Mulcair, and he seems 20 years younger than Harper," says one Liberal.

The fact that he's unpredictable gives him an authenticity that appeals to his supporters. It's like Rob Ford: "Love him, or hate him, he has a brand that's recognizable."

Shortcomings are well known

Although many Liberal insiders clearly think Trudeau is going to win, it's not like they don't know his deficits. "He sometimes shoots his mouth off before he knows what he's going to say," says one.

They admit it's not clear that Trudeau has the "policy decks" or the political instincts and leadership skills to unite a caucus.

One strategist says Trudeau's first real opponent will be the journalist who snags him for a two-hour interview and grills him on the economy, on bilateral relations, on the status of natives, on what he would do in Afghanistan. No one has seen Trudeau address these issues, the strategist says, and historically he's not been expansive.

And then there's the issue of a merger or cooperation with the NDP, a question he's likely to be hit with at his first press conference after his leadership announcement, which is expected to come Tuesday in his Montreal riding of Papineau.

One strategist says he would advise Trudeau to run as the "one-thing-at-a-time candidate." He says Trudeau's approach should be: "I want to lead the Liberal party, I think it's the best bet for moving the country forward, but we've got a problem. We want to get rid of Harper, but we're divided, so one of the first orders of business is how we deal with it. I'd put that on my agenda."

Another strategist doesn't think that leadership contests are consumed by "policy minutiae" anyway. What the party needs, he says, and what Trudeau needs to do, is offer a new Liberal narrative, and it can't just be a political strategist's narrative about how to appeal to different groups.

"That's Romney and Boca Raton talk, and that's not what candidates should talk about, they don't talk about differentiation, they offer visions and articulate what the future can look like," the strategist says, contrasting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's disastrous hidden-camera speech to donors leaked earlier this month.

What the party can't do, this strategist says, is keep going with a recitation of all the great things it's done in the past. 

Tapping a new generation

Trudeau, left, and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, centre, joke with Lyall Curry, 92, at the party's annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary July 7. 'He's good with people,' one Liberal says of Trudeau. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Another insider says the last thing the party needs is a bunch of old timers looking like they're picking the winning horse. "What you want this to be about is a new generation taking over the Liberal party, and people who haven't been involved in politics before should be getting involved because of this."

Another long time Liberal acknowledges that Trudeau has got to prove that he's not just a rock star. "If I was advising Justin, I'd say, you're looking at a two-and-a-half-year campaign, with the [leadership] being one hurdle and the election being the next." There will be plenty of time to be tested, he says, and maybe Trudeau can develop some substantive speeches and put some good people around him.

"He's not stupid," says a former senior strategist who has worked with Justin Trudeau. "He's got a kind of native intelligence, he's got street smarts, he's good with people — I don't mean the beautiful people. He's good with ordinary people.

"He's underestimated. Every Tory I know says, 'I can't wait to get my hands on him.'"