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Globe and Mail, October 3, 2006

Handicaps are hobbling all the Liberal candidates

by Jeffrey Simpson

One person led but nobody won the delegate-selection process for the Liberal leadership.

The best Michael Ignatieff could do was capture about 30 per cent of the delegates, good enough to be in the lead but not good enough to be certain of victory.

Mr. Ignatieff had more organizers than his competitors, lots of money (by the parsimonious standards of the race), the most media attention, a certain star quality, the longest position papers, the slickest website, by far the most endorsements from Liberal heavyweights, and yet he got 30 per cent.

You would have thought with all Mr. Ignatieff had going for him, including politically crippled opponents, that he could and should have done better. That he did not, and that none of his opponents could ease over 20 per cent, illustrated the simple and perhaps eventually fatal point that none of these candidates has captured the party's heart or mind. And having failed in that mission, to this point, can any one of them expect to captivate the country?

At one level, Liberals can be proud of the quartet at the top of their race. They are all intelligent people. Three have outstanding academic pedigrees: Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Rae and Mr. Dion. Three have international experience. Three have extensive government experience, excluding Mr. Ignatieff. Three are bilingual, and Mr. Kennedy can limp along in French.

On sheer brainpower, the Liberal quartet eclipses the choice Conservatives confronted when they chose a leader: Stephen Harper, Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach.

If the quartet stays in politics -- and wins seats in Parliament -- the Liberals will have a fine cadre of people with which to build a front bench.

But as leadership candidates, each has handicaps that have prevented any one of them from blowing the others away.

Mr. Dion's English, although comprehensible, is far-from perfect. A lot of Liberals just don't want another leader from Quebec, francophone or anglophone. His former cabinet colleagues and MPs are overwhelmingly supporting other candidates, which tells you something about how they view his electoral chances and his ability to build a political team.

On the prairies, especially in Saskatchewan, Mr. Dion has made an alliance of sorts with David Orchard, a flaky, marginal political figure who is almost a cult. Mr. Orchard ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, then switched to the Liberals. He helped Mr. Dion win delegates, but he's hardly the kind of ally Mr. Dion wants to put in his national political window.

Mr. Kennedy is fatally handicapped by his problems in French. The Liberal Party, given its history and the need to rebuild (if it can) in Quebec, just won't pick someone with his linguistic limitations. This might be unfair and frustrating; it is also political reality.

Mr. Kennedy, the youngest of the quartet, might have been better positioned had the Liberal Party accepted defeat in the next election and been therefore looking for a long-term comeback. But the Conservatives' inability to push their polling numbers into majority government territory has the Liberals thinking, perhaps wrongly, that the party can actually win next time.

Mr. Rae just can't shake his Ontario problem. He has never adequately acknowledged, through pride or strategic design, what went wrong in his years as premier, what lessons he learned, what ideas he now has that makes the Liberal Party a better vehicle than the NDP.

His poor third-place showing in his home province -- behind Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Kennedy -- cannot be explained away other than Liberals there could not abide the prospect of his leadership. And if the Ontario Liberals couldn't, why should Liberals elsewhere who must know that winning in Ontario is the foundation of the party's recovery.

These and other limitations crippled these candidates and prevented them, despite evident strengths, from getting past 20 per cent.

As for Mr. Ignatieff, that he couldn't crawl above 30 per cent illustrates he grates on a lot of Liberals who still can't get over his long absence from Canada, his approach to foreign policy, and his apparent willingness to gamble on reopening the constitutional file to recognize Quebec as a "nation."

Someone will obviously win. At this stage, no one is close, because their handicaps are holding them back.

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