There is a theory in boxing that you build champions by putting them in fights early on that they can win easily. It builds confidence, which comes in handy later when the competition is fiercer.
There must be a few boxing fans in NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar's camp. In one of his first stops outside the National Capital Region, Dewar walked safely among supporters in Winnipeg, a town with which he has more than a passing familiarity.
Dewar is a member of one of the NDP's first families. His mother, Marion, was a former mayor of Ottawa who went on to serve in the House of Commons. His brother, Bob Dewar, is a director of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union and a former chief of staff to former NDP premier Gary Doer. Dewar himself has fought many elections in Manitoba.
In other words, when he stepped inside the Filipino Senior Citizens Hall on Euclid Avenue yesterday in the heart of Winnipeg's historic Point Douglas neighbourhood, he was among friends. About 200 supporters, including a cavalcade of A-list provincial NDP cabinet ministers, packed the tidy hall and delivered love that will serve Dewar well during the next few months.
The reception may have been a bit less passionate if, for example, Dewar was near Montreal, where on Thursday fellow MP Thomas Mulcair confirmed he is also officially in the race to replace the late Jack Layton. A darling of the national media, Mulcair's announcement eclipsed Dewar's Winnipeg event. No matter. Dewar was soaking up the love in Winnipeg, and he's better off for it.
At first glance, Dewar has all the tools needed to pick up where Layton left off: He is telegenic, earnest and articulate. Although the national media have questioned his French, the Ottawa-raised Dewar spoke quite a bit in both official languages and handled questions from the franco-Manitoban media with relative ease.
As for the substance of his campaign, the jury is still out. He is positioning himself as a candidate who will continue Layton's high-road, campaign-of-hope legacy. He also claims to be the best candidate to beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative party in the next federal election. However, all the other declared candidates have sounded those same notes.
Dewar talks frequently about the need to build the party from the "grassroots" up and represent the interests of "everyday people." These are, however, the same poetic but fuzzy and essentially meaningless buzzwords used by the populist right. In the context of an NDP leadership race, they come across as particularly thin gruel.
If there is something a bit fuzzy about the Dewar campaign, that cannot be said of the early offerings from Mulcair. The NDP's senior Quebec MP aggressively announced an intention to "do things differently" by turning the NDP into a national centrist coalition that, by necessity, will require it to ease away from its labour roots. This is likely to be the defining debate in this leadership race: whether to stay the course in the hope that Canadians are warming to the NDP message, or move to the centre in hopes of becoming the big-tent party of this decade.
To date, the surge that thrust the NDP into official Opposition status has been widely misinterpreted within the party as an endorsement of its traditional brand and posture. However, like all parties that experience a surge, the NDP's new support base is an amalgam of constituencies: disenchanted red Tories, left-leaning Liberals, wandering moderates and self-proclaimed progressives who want to have their cake (high ideals) and eat it, too (a shot at governing).
The NDP showed some movement towards a new brand with its decision to end the practice of offering automatic delegates to labour organizations for the upcoming leadership convention. This gesture alone gives the NDP some traction in its battle to galvanize new constituencies of support.
It's not clear where Dewar is positioned in this debate. In a post-event interview, he agreed that limiting union influence in the leadership race is a step forward, yet earlier he told supporters he wants national anti-scab legislation.
He said it might not be necessary for the party to move completely away from its roots, as Mulcair has suggested. Along with the decision to limit labour influence, "it will show Canadians that we are open to everyone."
Unfortunately, parties have to stand for something or else they get lost in the muddled middle. For now, Dewar is a promising, aspiring leader who, like his party, is in search of a brand.