A milestone has passed in the Liberal leadership race: the deadline for signing up new members. It’s time to say where the various contenders seem to stand at the end of this first mile.
Answer: Michael Ignatieff ahead by a length or more.
Ignatieff was front-runner right from the starting gate, because the vote on the left of the party is split among several strong candidates: Bob Rae, Stephane Dion, Gerard Kennedy, Ken Dryden. Ignatieff, on the other hand, has a clear lead on the relative right. Scott Brison might be from about the same turf, but he seems well behind, having stumbled even before the gun sounded.
Given that the party has been in the hands of the Martinites for a few years, also to the right in Liberal terms, and they controlled party memberships, one can expect a majority of Blue Grits in the membership lists before the current membership drive. So other candidates really had to do well here.
And, to have much chance to stop Ignatieff, a clear alternative must emerge on the left, and quickly. Otherwise no momentum; and momentum is needed for bandwagons. It is of course possible for a big move to happen late, as hoisted Joe Clark past better-known contenders in his first leadership win. But the later it gets, the less chance there is, as a clear frontrunner tends to sew up more endorsements and start to look inevitable.
And note, Clark was running for the conservatives. That makes all the difference. Liberals love a winner, and close ranks quickly around a frontrunner. Once Martin looked like a shoo-in, nobody else could even manage a campaign. Ask yourself; how many times in the history of federal Liberal leadership races, ever since there has been such a thing, has the early frontrunner lost? By my count, exactly never.
So, again, it was important for a clear alternative to Ignatieff to emerge quickly.
That is just the opposite of what seems to have happened in the membership drive. Instead, Joe Volpe, until now a second-tier candidate, pulled off the most new memberships. Worse, he beat both Bob Rae and Stephane Dion, probably the two most likely alternatives to Ignatieff, in what is supposed to be their power base, Quebec. So, reportedly, did Ignatieff. So, while Ignatieff seems to be holding his lead, the possibility of opposition to him coming together quickly in an “anybody but Ignatieff” movement has been reduced.
Nor is it clear that Volpe delegates would automatically go to someone other than Ignatieff on a later ballot. Volpe’s base seems to be more ethnic than ideological.
Even more trouble for the non-Ignatieffs is that Gerard Kennedy seems to have established something of a power base in the West. This makes him a plausible stealth candidate. The Liberals forget about the West, but he has it largely to himself, and it is a large pool.
Because they are all so close, the non-Ignatieffs may now be tempted to take shots at one another; hoping to pull away from that tight pack. Again, this helps Ignatieff: they will have less energy and ammunition left to stop him.
So I’d have to call Ignatieff the strong favourite at this point, barring some catastrophic stumble by the candidate himself.
I look forward to Ignatieff as Liberal leader. I think he is a strong candidate, and, partisan considerations aside, it is best for Canada if each party puts their best candidate forward.
Volpe? No, he’s not going anywhere. He has the growth potential of a Cabbage Patch Kid.