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Can Liberal pawns become knights?

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OTTAWA -- So he's not a promise breaker after all. Well, now: Don't we all look silly.

Bob Rae's prolonged cat-and-mouse game with the media and with his party, and effectively his career as a leading political figure in Canada, came to a dramatic conclusion Wednesday when the Liberal interim leader announced he will not seek the permanent party leadership.

For the Liberals, facing an increasingly tough slog as the third player in the House of Commons and in public opinion, Rae's decision is both a gift and a curse. It opens the door to a new generation of leadership. It also takes the party's most talented orator and parliamentarian off the board.

For months, Rae has been criticized for being deliberately vague about his intentions. In his announcement early Wednesday afternoon, he was anything but. He said he'd been moved by requests that he run; been profoundly torn about whether to do so; but eventually decided it was in his party's best interest that he not. It seems likely he was swayed by the knowledge that a run, despite his solemn promise not to do so, would have exposed him to constant, scathing charges of hypocrisy from the government side.

This throws the race, believed to have been Rae's for the taking, wide open. And it sets up the next, big unanswered question: Will Justin Trudeau, 40, run? Wednesday afternoon he confirmed he might, saying he's considering his options.

Should the eldest son of Pierre Trudeau overcome his stated reluctance to be separated from his young family by the burdens of leadership, he automatically becomes the front-runner. No other Liberal has anything close to Trudeau's public profile; no other has his combination of a solid base in Quebec, fluency in both languages, youth and family pedigree. Most obviously, no other Liberal -- indeed no other Canadian politician -- has Trudeau's seemingly effortless ability to galvanize media attention and public debate.

His negatives, as always, are his inexperience and the common perception that he lacks intellectual heft. Though he is a two-term MP, Trudeau's views on the hard questions of economic policy are unknown. Given that Stephen Harper's personal brand and the Tory brand generally are built around economic management, this is a considerable obstacle.

MP Marc Garneau, the former astronaut, is expected to jump in now. Garneau is well-liked within the party, fluent in both languages and also has a unique pedigree as Canada's first spaceman. Any candidate for high office who can legitimately pose in a spacesuit with the Maple Leaf on his shoulder is a contender. Garneau, 63, has age working against him. He has experience, including as a naval officer, working for him.

MP David McGuinty, brother of the Ontario premier, has long been contemplating a run. He would bring to bear his brother's Ontario Liberal machine. On the other hand, the McGuinty political brand is not what it once was. Martha Hall Findlay and Gerard Kennedy, both of whom ran for the leadership last time and both of whom lost their seats in 2011, have also been contemplating bids.

Ultimately though, it was about Rae and Trudeau; now it's about Trudeau. In effect, Trudeau becomes the new Bob Rae. At every public appearance in the days and weeks ahead, he will be peppered with questions about his intentions. It will be difficult for him to hedge for very long.

Would a Trudeau run be a good thing for the Grits? In terms of visibility, obviously. But electorally? That's much less clear. The party faces stark choices. It can try to stay the course. It can reinvent the policy book and forge a new path. Or it can get serious about merging with the New Democrats. That applies to Trudeau, as much as to anyone else. None of it is easy.

Door No. 3 would likely require concessions that, while certainly not impossible, will be difficult for senior Liberals to make, given they remember power. Door No. 2 is risky, in that it could push away diehard supporters. Door No. 1 is the safest course -- but also the one least likely to bring success in a general election, it seems to me, because it presupposes continuing incompetence in government ranks, which is not a given. It also presupposes that Canadians will vote for a platform they have three times rejected since 2005.

It is interesting that Rae has taken himself off the board, he says, in hope that pawns will become knights. But that is very much an expression of hope. Any way one looks at this, the Liberals have lost a star. They will find him difficult to replace.


Michael Den Tandt is a columnist

for Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2012 A12

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