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Mulcair almost certain to be NDP leader - maybe

The odds that Thomas Mulcair will be Leader of the Official Opposition by this time next week border on the prohibitive.

In the unlikely event the Montreal MP does fall short at this weekend's NDP leadership convention, the one to watch is B.C. MP Nathan Cullen. But any non-Mulcair victory scenarios are probably no more than the febrile speculation of a pundit searching for alternatives to a conclusion already foregone.

Mr. Mulcair has raised more money, from more donors, than any other candidate. He is best positioned to beat back challenges from the Liberals and Bloc Québécois in Quebec, where the NDP dominates in seats, if no longer in popular support. Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh, nominally a challenger, is in fact working to deliver the Indo-Canadian vote to the Mulcair camp.

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If, on the first ballot at the NDP convention in Toronto on Saturday, Mr. Mulcair secures 35 per cent of the vote or thereabouts, he is almost certain to prevail, as at least some of the second choices of those forced off the ballot drift to him on subsequent ballots.

The only thing standing in his way is the old guard of the party, who fear this ill-tempered outsider will divide the NDP even as he moves it toward the centre in a bid to topple Stephen Harper's Conservatives at the next election. This resentment is as much personal as ideological, with the other candidates fighting against each other rather than coalescing around an alternative to Mr. Mulcair, thus furthering his chances.

If someone else does come from behind to win the convention as everyone's second choice, who might it be?

Party strategist Brian Topp has much of the old guard's support – witness former leader Ed Broadbent's jeremiad last week against Mr. Mulcair. Mr. Broadbent supports Mr. Topp, who also boasts an impressive organization and decent fundraising.

But Mr. Topp has no experience as a politician and no seat in Parliament. He and Mr. Mulcair are powerful rivals, and the backers of neither will go to the other as second choice. In the cleft between this clash of mighty opposites lies the best hope for Toronto MP Peggy Nash and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar.

The problem is that the Nash and Dewar camps, both of whom are struggling to dominate in Ontario, are also at daggers drawn. Mr. Dewar's French is poor, and choosing him would be seen by Quebec voters as a repudiation of their support for the party in the past election. Ms. Nash has solid union support, but she is hampered by an old-school approach to social democracy that could easily return the party to distant third in popular support.

As of Sunday, only 22 per cent of the roughly 130,000 party members eligible to cast a preferential ballot had submitted their choices. This means that (a) many who could vote, won't; (b) the real rush of voting will come between now and Thursday; or (c) voters are waiting till Saturday, when they can cast a ballot online or in person for one candidate during each round of voting.

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In the latter case, if Mr. Mulcair cannot command much more than 30-per-cent support on the first ballot, voters will go looking for a compromise candidate. And here is Mr. Cullen's best, though long-shot, chance.

The British Columbia MP favours co-operation with the Liberals to defeat the Harper Conservatives in 2015. Though no other candidate supports that position, at least a minority of NDP members do. Mr. Cullen has strong backing in B.C., the province with the largest number of card-carrying New Democrats. He speaks accented French well and, most important, he has made no enemies among the other camps. It's possible that supporters from every candidate could shift to Mr. Cullen as the compromise everyone could live with.

But this remains the least-unlikely alternative to the much-more likely victory by Mr. Mulcair. Your correspondent is as certain of this as he was in October, 2007, that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic presidential nomination.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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