NDP debate 1: an embarrassment of riches

Paul Wells on why candidates are still hiding behind one another

Paul Dewar, Brian Topp and Thomas Mulcair (L-R) (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

“There were only two candidates on that stage who were ready for prime time,” a guy who works for Tom Mulcair’s NDP leadership campaign told me. “And one of them will never be prime minister.”

I smiled knowingly and nodded. Mulcair Guy, quickly sensing that I had no idea what he was talking about, filled in the blanks. “Nathan was on fire today. If it was maybe 10 years later…”

Ah-ha. This is how you know you’re in a leadership race: every whispered confidence comes with a healthy dose of spin.

Having finally decoded Mulcair Guy’s message, let me pass it along to the home audience. The nine candidates for the leadership of the New Democratic Party should be judged, not on amiability or appeal to the base or any other trivial consideration, but on general mastery of the craft, Mulcair Guy was saying. And the goal toward which the party must now dedicate its energy is winning power.

That much is uncontroversial, or had better be if the NDP hopes even to hold its impressive 2011 election gains, let alone grow further. Next: Mulcair Guy was saying that the only two candidates who performed well at the grandly refurbished Ottawa Convention Centre were Mulcair himself, and Nathan Cullen. And that, since Cullen’s is essentially a novelty candidacy, the choice comes down to Mulcair alone.

See what he did there? Instead of comparing Mulcair to Brian Topp, Peggy Nash or Paul Dewar, each of whom is thought to have a shot at winning this thing, compare your man to Nathan Cullen, who has been ignored everywhere except by one eccentric scribbler.

Much the same happened during the debate’s least soporific moment, when Topp rounded on Dewar and challenged him to explain how he’d pay for all his fancy proposals. The point isn’t that Topp was facing Dewar, who seems to me like the candidate with the least compelling claim to front-runnerdom; it’s that he was facing away from… Mulcair.

This early in the race, candidates in this wide field (not too wide! Don’t listen to our whining: a variety of choices is better for New Democrats than a lack of choice) are hiding behind one another. Mulcair Guy was inserting Cullen between Mulcair and the rest of the field, not to elevate Cullen but to push Topp, in particular, down. Topp ignored Mulcair so studiously for much the same reason. That’s why, when candidates were asked to name their second-favourite candidate, so many named 29-year-old Niki Ashton — because that keeps Mulcairmentum or Toppmentum from building.

It’ll take a while, and a few more debates, for real frontrunners to make their ability clear. Yesterday the main surprise was the solid performances of a few candidates who were not getting taken seriously by the pundit hivemind until now. Niki Ashton comes ready to rumble, as poised and articulate in French as in English. Cullen is funny, relaxed and pertinent. In French, at least, both were more compelling than Dewar. In general, the debate succeeded in adding to the list of candidates who must be taken seriously, rather than subtracting from it.

Who’s at the top? Mulcair’s eloquence and command of detail made him easily the most polished political performer on the stage. The others aren’t even close. But as Mulcair has shown in the past, his ease of expression sometimes makes it easy for him to say doltish things, and there is more than enough unease with the prospect of a Mulcair leadership to give the other candidates hope.

I thought Topp performed very well, strong on details but also succeeding, during the tiny amounts of time available to him, at linking each discussion back to some broader theme. Few of the people I spoke to afterward seemed as impressed as I was. New Democrats have a half-dozen more debates to sort this out before the end of March.

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