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U.S.-style political mudslinging? Don't bet on the NDP

Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair speaks during the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2011.

BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters

Slumping polls and criticism of a lacklustre leadership campaign are dogging the NDP – but the spectre of Tory attack ads are holding the contenders back.

"The experience of the GOP race is very sobering for everybody watching from the sidelines," says Robin Sears, a former national director of the NDP and now a partner at Navigator, a strategic communications company.

He is referring to the pitched battles and nasty barbs flying between American politicians – Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich – who are vying to be the Republican presidential candidate. And the effect they are having on the NDP leadership battle.

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"Basically they are generating a whole library of campaign material for the Obama campaign," says Mr. Sears. "And the NDP leadership candidates are very sensitive to what the Liberal leadership race generated for the Harper people. I don't think you're going to see anybody say or do something without thinking to themselves, no matter what happens on the 24th of March will this hurt us later?"

The new leader will be elected on March 24 in Toronto.

Toronto Star columnist Tim Harper wrote recently about the Republican debates and the gift they are providing Democrats.

"Ultimately, the winner in the Republican slugfest will likely be Barack Obama," he wrote. "Republicans have been so busy hammering each other they have given Democrats a treasure trove of campaign material to use against the eventual nominee."

The Harper Conservatives, meanwhile, are masters of the attack ad and used their considerable war chest to successfully define previous Liberal leaders, Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. In the last elections, the Tories launched a number of pre-writ negative ads, painting Mr. Dion as lacking in leadership and Mr. Ignatieff as an academic who came back to Canada from abroad just to seek power.

They were able to do this by picking and choosing from statements the former leaders had made in the Commons, in debates, interviews and other events.

Mr. Sears says the NDP are loath to give the Tories any ammunition. As result, the leadership debates have generated little tension and few sparks between the eight candidates. In fact, B.C. contender, Nathan Cullen, joked at one debate that he was in "violent agreement" with his colleagues.

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Five of the NDP candidates debated Wednesday night in Montreal. Again, their exchanges garnered a few headlines.

But there are expectations that the party-sanctioned debate Sunday in Halifax could be a little more lively as the stakes are becoming higher with the February 18th deadline to stop selling memberships quickly approaching.

"Stay tuned, we're going to head into a period of much greater intensity now than before," predicts Mr. Sears. "It's pretty clear that this is the phase of the campaign when people are going to have to establish themselves as being further up the rank in the front four, or in the front four, having bumped somebody else down, pretty soon."

The four leading candidates are considered to be party strategist Brian Topp, Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair, Toronto MP Peggy Nash and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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