The One To Watch
TORONTO – Quick, now: What does the jumbled Liberal Party leadership race have in common with an obscure 19th-century English novel?
The answer: "a dark horse," a phrase thought to have been first used in print in The Young Duke, published in 1831.
The germane sentence reads: "A dark horse, which had never been thought of, rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph." Bonus points if you identified its author, a 27-year-old lawyer who, something of a dark horse himself, would become prime minister of England — Benjamin Disraeli.
The dark horse in the Liberals' current grand national steeplechase is easy to spot. More than halfway toward the finish line — the leadership convention in Montreal — Gerard Kennedy is raring to go, tucked in behind Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion.
But while much of the news media have been focused on the front-runners, Mr. Kennedy has been galloping in their slipstream, signing up thousands of new party members and raising just north of $400,000.
Four weeks ago, a very senior Liberal senator, officially unaffiliated, hosted a salon for Mr. Kennedy in his Montreal home. A private affair, no reporters, just a few well-placed friends to meet the candidate, take his pulse and hear him talk about renewal, what the Liberal Party needs to do to regain the confidence of Canadian voters; the sort of event one might imagine being arranged for a young Pierre Elliott Trudeau, circa 1967.
Clearly, he has some distance to go. A survey conducted by the Strategic Counsel last week for The Globe and Mail and CTV shows Mr. Kennedy tied for fourth place with Ken Dryden, each with the support of 9 per cent of Liberal Party members. Several blogger surveys predict Mr. Kennedy will do better.
Much will depend on the convention's mood. Less sullied and more youthful than his better-known rivals, Mr. Kennedy — neither a Martinite nor a Chrétienite — bears no scars from the party's internecine wars and might thus be regarded as a leader who can heal the rifts.
More importantly, although 81 per cent of Liberals told the Strategic Counsel they believe the party can form the next government, delegates will, in fact, be electing a new opposition leader, for potentially five years. By that time, Messrs. Ignatieff and Rae, with all their liabilities, would be into their mid-60s — not an age, perhaps, to galvanize the emerging generation. Mr. Kennedy would be just 51, seasoned federally and, leaning slightly left, a nightmare for Jack Layton's NDP.
"Kennedy's what I call the sleeper," pollster Allan Gregg said. "He doesn't carry the same baggage as some of the others, although he does carry some — notably, almost no support in Quebec. But it's early days yet. And oftentimes, to find the winner, you have to look not at the front-runner or even the guy in second, but the third choice."
Political consultant John Duffy, a principal at Toronto's Strategy Corp. and officially neutral, agrees. "Kennedy is well positioned to exploit the negatives of the other name candidates. He's definitely one to watch, with a lot of late-ballot potential. The question is: Will he be able to withstand the scrutiny of being the one to watch?"