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NDP leadership buzz still missing

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OTTAWA -- The NDP leadership hopefuls met in Halifax Sunday for another debate.

It was the second party-sponsored debate. There will be four more before the race concludes at a convention March 24 in Toronto.

With Parliament resuming today and five separate polls last week giving hints the NDP's surge in popularity may be waning, especially in Quebec, one might have thought there would be some urgency to the candidates' deliberations this time.

One would be wrong.

It was perhaps slightly feistier than previous gatherings, but still rather uninspiring.

A brief exchange between MPs Thomas Mulcair and Nathan Cullen on bulk water exports raised the temperature a little. Some in the audience came alive when Cullen pushed his plan for mixed-member proportional representation to replace the first-past-the-post voting system we have now.

Cullen also had to repeatedly defend his plan to hold joint nominations with the Liberals in Conservative-held ridings.

Beyond that, it was pretty bland and somewhat underlines a new poll that shows many Canadians do not have any idea who these candidates are.

Abacus Data released a survey Friday that found 40 per cent of Canadians couldn't name any of the eight people running to replace the late Jack Layton. Among people who said they'd likely vote NDP if an election were held today, one in three people couldn't name a single candidate. More than half could only name one or two.

Whether that's a sad reflection of our nation's apathy, a commentary on the interest in the NDP, or some combination of the two, is uncertain.

But it does suggest the NDP is not attracting many viewers to its leadership contest, even among its own.

Mulcair was the most recognizable and even he barely hit the radar screens of more than one in three people, with 36 per cent of Canadians and 38 per cent of NDP supporters knowing who he was. Former party president Brian Topp was second most well-known (if you can call it that), with 31 per cent of Canadians and 32 per cent of NDP supporters recognizing his name.

Three of the eight, including Manitoba's Niki Ashton, were known by fewer than one in 10 Canadians, and only one in 10 NDP supporters.

Now it must be said that this is a poll to be taken with a large grain of salt. It's done online, and Abacus acknowledges that because the survey was not a random, probability-based sample, a margin of error cannot be calculated. So it's difficult to know exactly how to read the results.

But it probably won't help the NDP's confidence heading back into the start of Parliament today.

It also gives the Conservatives a blank canvas on which to launch an immediate swatch of attack ads to define whoever wins before that person can define themselves.

It's the type of strategy that worked to great success for the Conservatives against the last two official opposition leaders.

There is no need for the NDP to panic yet. Three of four federal polls released last week suggest the NDP is within two or three points of its election result last May. One, released Sunday, was a bit more troublesome as it had the NDP down six points from the election and slightly trailing the Liberals.

The Quebec numbers are a little more scary for the NDP, since more than half its caucus now comes from Quebec. All four national polls and one taken just in Quebec show the NDP down between 16 and 23 points from election day. The party is still in first place in Quebec in every poll, but the drop is still significant.

There is no reason to panic but there is reason for the eight people vying for the party leadership to figure out ways to get more people to pay attention to them.

It's probably not necessary to stage an all-out war against each other. But a little more fire and a little less blah would help.

Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin pulled no punches last week when he urged the candidates to kick it up a notch.

"All this holding hands and singing Kumbaya can only take you so far," Martin said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2012 A6

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