MONTREAL—Justin Trudeau may have to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory to lose the Liberal leadership campaign but for that to happen his rivals will have to start closing the gap that has so far made this race a very lopsided one.
For the eight men and women who are competing against Trudeau, the task of leveling the playing field really begins on Sunday, when the party kicks off a round of five leadership debates in Vancouver.
At the time of last year’s NDP leadership campaign, party strategist Brian Topp entered the debates with sterling endorsements from New-Democrat luminaries such as former leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow. But that was not enough to put fears about his lack of elected experience to rest.
For his part, Trudeau has been known to give solid solo performances. And he is a master at working a room. But based on performance in the House of Commons to date, no one would describe him as a parliamentary force or a model of intellectual gravitas.
He also has a documented tendency to venture out onto precarious limbs. His clumsy attempt to take his distance from the gun registry — to use just one example — suggests that he may need more scripting than a debate format allows.
But Trudeau is not the only candidate who will be tested on Sunday.
Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Jack Layton did not hold seats in Parliament when they became federal leaders. But there is a difference between not having a seat and having failed to keep or win a riding with a decent Liberal history as Martha Hall Findlay and Martin Cauchon did in 2011.
In the NDP campaign, Nathan Cullen championed the idea of an electoral coalition between the New Democrats and the Liberals. The proposal was disliked by the party establishment. It went against the grain of a membership that was still buoyant from its second-place finish in the last election.
Still Cullen stuck to his guns at the debates and while he did not win the leadership vote, he did a lot better than anyone initially expected—beating veteran MPs such as Peggy Nash and Dewar for third place.
All of which is to suggest that in a leadership campaign, a candidate is as likely if not more to be rewarded for a demonstrated capacity to communicate his ideas than for the ideas themselves.
Conservative, NDP and Bloc Québécois strategists will all be watching Sunday’s debate to get at glimpse at what makes the next Liberal leader tick but also to gather potential material for future negative ads.