Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Liberals cast wide net in picking new leader

While seeking to weed out weak contenders

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MONTEBELLO, Que. -- The Liberal party is casting its doors wide open in a bid to have what interim chief Bob Rae calls "the broadest-based leadership contest in the history of the country."

Minnie Mouse, however, need not apply -- either as a candidate or as a voter.

Campaign rules the party announced Thursday appear designed to discourage penny-ante political gadflies and reward candidates with muscular fundraising skills, while simultaneously inviting as many Canadians as possible to cast a ballot next April 14.

"We do think it's taking us to a new level in terms of the amount of participation and the openness of the process," Rae said following three days of fall caucus meetings at a tony resort in western Quebec.

With the once-mighty Big Red Machine down to 35 seats and third-party status in the House of Commons, many Liberals feel the party has to get this leadership race right.

A new class of non-dues-paying "supporters" has been created, a decision made last winter after intense debate at a national policy convention.

Candidates will be able to recruit paying party members or non-paying supporters up to 41 days before decision day.

"Looking at where we are, um, what exactly do we have to lose by trying something new?" said Rae.

Party president Mike Crawley said more than 20,000 supporters are already on board. Some fear the leadership decision could be swamped by casual observers, non-Liberals, political provocateurs or embarrassing aliases.

"I had Minnie Mouse's support in 2006," Rae, a two-time federal leadership contender, quipped in an effort to defuse the issue.

"I have no idea where her vote will go in this particular campaign."

The race rules aim to forestall embarrassments that have dogged recent Liberal leadership races.

"There will be a clear process to authenticate those supporters, to make sure they are individuals and make sure that they are who they say they are," said Crawley.

The new $950,000 spending cap is higher than some Liberals had proposed -- and almost double the limit the NDP set in its leadership race held last winter -- which could favour a high-profile, powerful fundraiser such as Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau continues to play coy, although he did say the rules announced Thursday "look reasonable."

As for his own potential bid, "the deadline seems to be mid-January to announce. I will probably make my intentions clear one way or another before that."

New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc, another prospective leadership candidate, says the next leader needs to commit 10 to 15 years of his or her life "occupied exclusively" with rebuilding the Liberal party and winning elections.

LeBlanc says the leadership race isn't the place for politicians to learn public speaking and he endorses a stiff entry fee.

"The Liberal leadership shouldn't become a kind of practice for the Toastmasters club," said LeBlanc, the son of former governor general Romèo LeBlanc. "I think if you want to practise speech-making there are other places to do it."

The rules are explicitly designed to ensure no candidate limps out of the race with an un-payable debt load.

Montreal MP Marc Garneau's official position on his potential candidacy is that he has not yet made a decision. If he runs, however, he's not going to do it on credit.

"I will not have anything to pay off because I'm not going to put myself in debt," Garneau said. "I will spend the money I have."

Conservative party operatives are still thumping the Liberals at every opportunity -- and did so again Thursday -- over unpaid leadership debts.

"It is outrageous that nearly six years after their 2006 leadership campaign, four senior Liberals remain in violation of the law for refusing to pay back large loans," Conservative party spokesman Fred Delorey said in an email.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2012 A17

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