There is a reason the Conservative Party launched an attack ad against Bob Rae on the same week as the NDP leadership convention.
The Conservatives are convinced Mr. Rae will lead the Liberal Party into the next election–an increasingly safe assumption. And they fear him more than they fear whomever the New Democrats choose on Saturday. So while the Tories wait to learn who will lead the official opposition, they're getting their licks in against what they see as the greater threat.
Though nominally only interim leader, Mr. Rae's hold on the job appears unassailable. Potential rivals – Quebec MP Justin Trudeau, former Quebec cabinet minister Martin Cauchon, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc – have either decided they're not interested, or have tested the waters and found them frigid. Ottawa MP David McGuinty, brother to Ontario's premier, and MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau may also be interested, but at this point Mr. Rae is seen as by far the most credible permanent leader for the third party.
Mr. Rae has solid support in caucus, and can point to rising poll numbers as proof of his effectiveness on the job. He may also be the best candidate to execute a strategy penned by John Duffy, a former adviser to Paul Martin, whose recent article in Policy Options magazine has been widely and carefully read by Liberals everywhere.
Mr. Duffy believes Canada is fracturing between the commodity producing West and the industrial East, which is suffering from the high dollar those commodities fetch.
"If the Liberals can convincingly tag the Conservatives as favouring the commodity economies of their political heartland at the expense of the rest," he wrote, then the Liberals will possess "narrative and demographic and regional bases of support that truly challenge the foundations of Conservative power."
The Liberals believe that Mr. Rae has more experience and popular support in Quebec than Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, who is favoured to become Leader of the Official Opposition after Saturday's leadership vote. (If the NDP chooses a leader from outside Quebec, so much the better for the Liberals.) The path to power for Mr. Rae and the Grits lies in stripping away from the NDP their Quebec gains while appealing to financially stressed voters in suburban ridings outside Toronto and other Ontario cities. Such a coalition would also embrace voters everywhere who can be found on the losing side of the "two Canadas" that Mr. Duffy sees: one prospering and happy with smaller government, the other struggling and in need of help.
To destroy Mr. Rae's credibility before it becomes too deeply entrenched, the Conservatives are already trying to tar him with his record as Ontario NDP premier in the 1990s. Whether Ontario voters are ready to forgive and forget that unhappy past could determine Mr. Rae's future. In any case, for the Tories the 2015 election is clearly already underway.
The Conservatives and the NDP would both benefit from seeing the Liberal Party expunged. For the NDP, it would make them the only realistic alternative to the Conservatives. For the Conservatives, a two-party race against social democrats is a race they are confident of winning over and over again.
No doubt the Tories will also prepare a line of attack against the NDP leader, once he or she is in place. But their heart won't be in it. It is a Liberal revival they fear most.
That fear is behind the Tory attack ad on Bob Rae. It will be the first of many.