Romeo Saganash has quit the NDP leadership race, opening the door to a rapid realignment of forces six weeks before Jack Layton's successor is finally selected.
Mr. Saganash, a Cree leader who was first elected to the House of Commons on May 2, was close to joining the team of strategist Brian Topp before he decided to launch his own underdog bid last September, NDP sources said.
In a news release on Thursday evening, Mr. Saganash did not throw his support behind any camp, but he did speak about eventually joining another campaign after his own bid failed to gain traction and enough funds.
"Building on the support we have gained in Quebec, reaching out to rural and suburban voters, and engaging the 40 percent of Canadians who did not vote in the last election will all be important steps for the next leader," Mr. Saganash said in the news release.
While Mr. Saganash's campaign never really took off, all seven remaining candidates are expected to actively solicit his endorsement. A respected MP and aboriginal leader, Mr. Saganash is popular among NDP members, and he could provide much needed momentum to another candidate in the campaign in which no one is clearly ahead of the others.
Mr. Saganash is the second candidate to drop out, leaving seven people in the race, including MPs Thomas Mulcair, Paul Dewar, Nathan Cullen and Peggy Nash. The winner will be picked in a one-member, one-vote preferential ballot on March 24.
Mr. Saganash is quitting the race just ahead of Sunday's first French-language debate in Quebec City, and his decision stunned many party members. Mr. Saganash has not given any sense to various campaigns about his future plans, NDP sources said.
"He needs to take a few days off," said one party official. "All campaigns will obviously be approaching him to solicit his support."
An NDP MP said that Mr. Saganash is not the type of person who will tolerate being pressured into endorsing anyone.
Mr. Saganash is scheduled to make a formal announcement in Val-d'Or, in his riding, on Friday. In the news release, he stated that he had not amassed sufficient support to run "the kind of campaign that I would like to run."
"It is impossible to run a winning campaign as the favourite second choice. People send you good wishes, but they don't send their money," he said.
He added that he wants to spend more time with his family, which made it impossible for him to build a campaign team across the country.
"There remains much work to do to bring this [aboriginal]community to the party, but a strong foundation of hope and engagement now exists. I am sure this will continue", he said.
There has been speculation that two underdog candidates, MP Niki Ashton and businessman Martin Singh, could also drop out of the leadership race, but both recently insisted they are in it for the long haul.
"The people who are supporting my campaign are keen to see it to victory," said Ms. Ashton.
"I'm running to win," Mr. Singh said. "So you can't quit early if you're running to win."
- With a report from The Canadian Press