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Politics NDP leadership hopefuls make final pitch to party before vote

Jagmeet Singh, Charlie Angus and Guy Caron pose for a photograph as Niki Ashton appears via satellite from Ottawa before the final federal NDP leadership debate in Vancouver on Sept. 10, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

New Democrats are casting the votes that will decide who will take them into the next election and, perhaps more importantly, who will rebuild the party.

Nearly a thousand of them gathered in Hamilton to hear the four candidates vying to replace Tom Mulcair give their final pitch before the first ballots are cast this week.

Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Jagmeet Singh do not hold vastly different ideas about how the country should be run.

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Rather this has become a race about style, and about whether this is the time for the party to embrace the tried and true and the traditions that many feel they abandoned to their detriment in the past election, or turn to a newcomer who promises growth.

Two years after Canadians booted the NDP from the offices of the Official Opposition, and a year and a half after party members decided Mr. Mulcair was no longer their choice for leader, there appears to be much reconstruction to do.

And all four candidates will tell you they have the best chance of rebuilding the party that is still smarting from being out-lefted by the Liberals in the 2015 election.

Mr. Caron, the only Quebecker, says he is the one that can bring back the support in his province that was the foundation of the so-called Orange Wave of 2011.

Ms. Ashton says she speaks to millennials who foresee a standard of living that is less than that enjoyed by their parents.

Mr. Angus is seen as the conscience of the party, the straight-talking fighter for social justice who reassures New Democrats that he has their back.

And Mr. Singh is promising "love and courage." But he is also promising to bring in new constituencies and the money that is sorely needed.

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"Here, in the Greater Toronto housing area, 50 of 59 seats are held by Liberals," Mr. Singh told the crowd. "This is where our team put 25,000 New Democrats. This is what we were able to do in just a few short months. Now imagine what we can build together in two years."

There are about 124,000 people eligible to vote in the leadership race, about 54,000 of whom have recently become members. Mr. Singh claims his campaign signed up 47,000 of them – a number that cannot be verified and is disputed by his rivals.

If is it true, and if he can get out the vote, he would appear to have a strong advantage in the contest that could go to three ballots over the next four weeks but which is expected to end sooner.

More importantly, he is bringing in money to a party that is starved for cash.

NDP officials estimate that it costs $40-million to run a competitive federal campaign – but the party is light years away from that goal.

Elections Canada data shows that, in 2016 and the first two quarters of 2017, the Liberals took in donations of $23,009,507.64 and the Conservatives collected $27,634,339.42. But the NDP raised just $7,133,561 over the same period. And, at the end of 2016, the party still owed $5.5-million from the past election.

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That is a concern of members, and it is one of the reasons that British Columbia MP Peter Julian dropped out of the race several months ago. He could show no capacity to raise funds for his own campaign.

Mr. Julian is now backing Mr. Singh, a lawyer and former Ontario deputy party leader who entered the contest in mid-May, months after the other three contenders, but raised $356,784 in contributions between April 1 and June 30. That was nearly three times as much as was raised by Mr. Angus, four times the amount raised by Ms. Ashton and almost six times the amount raised by Mr. Caron.

"Jagmeet has the leadership attributes that will attract not only traditional New Democratic supporters but those who have not supported the party in the past," said Brad Lavigne, a long-time party leader who helped engineer the gains of 2011.

"He is the growth candidate and we need growth going into the 2019 election campaign."

But supporters of other candidates argue the party is not in such bad shape and that the money will come with any new leader in place, and that the rebuilding job is not as daunting as it may seem.

There is a fundraising exercise that needs to occur, said Craig Scott, a former NDP MP who was defeated in 2015 and is supporting Mr. Caron. "But when the party excites, a lot of that falls into place and I think all four candidates have a different track to the way they can excite."

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Rick Smith, the executive director of the Broadbent Institute, said the party is in much better shape than it was 15 years ago. "It has a presence across the country that we couldn't have even imagined," Mr. Smith said. "So there is a depth to party activism and readiness now that, when Jack [Layton] took over 15 years ago, just wasn't there. We really were running on fumes then, not now."

Still there is the question of Quebec. Polls suggest the voters in that province are uninterested in the New Democrats, who they embraced in such large numbers under Mr. Layton.

New Democrat MP Pierre Nantel suggested this weekend that secular Quebeckers could never support a candidate such as Mr. Singh, who wears a turban – an overtly religious symbol. That has caused some angst among New Democrats who consider themselves the party of inclusiveness.

But it too could become a significant question as they mark their ballots for the person they believe can restore the political strength of six years ago.

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