The NDP leadership race is taking a turn for the nasty as party strategist Brian Topp, who bolted out of the gate five months ago with a series of establishment endorsements, is now fighting to regain his status as a top contender for Jack Layton's crown.
In an interview, Mr. Topp took aim at Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, whose campaign set off hostilities this week by releasing an internal poll that placed Mr. Topp in a surprising fifth place.
Mr. Dewar has acknowledged his French-language skills need work, but Mr. Topp went further, saying his rival's poor showing at a debate in Quebec City on Sunday should disqualify him from becoming the leader of the NDP and the Official Opposition.
"My sense is that Paul Dewar does not have the ability to speak to French-speaking Quebeckers in their language, which in my view is something that the next leader must have," Mr. Topp said, echoing concerns among many of the 58 NDP MPs from Quebec.
"It's very hard to imagine how you can be … at the head of a party whose whole future at the moment turns on holding a big breakthrough in Quebec, when you cannot speak to French-speaking Quebeckers," said Mr. Topp, who grew up in Quebec and now lives in Toronto.
The long-time party strategist also went after NDP deputy leader and MP Thomas Mulcair, who placed first in the poll released by the Dewar camp and in another poll released by his own staff on Monday.
Mr. Topp said the NDP would be unrecognizable under the leadership of Mr. Mulcair, who spent the first part of his political career in the Quebec Liberal Party. In addition, Mr. Mulcair flirted with the federal Conservatives before joining the NDP in 2007.
Pointing to his own engagement in the party going back to the 1980s, Mr. Topp said: "I'm from the New Democratic wing of the NDP."
Mr. Topp also built on his previous assertions that Mr. Mulcair's efforts to drag the NDP toward the political centre would turn off party supporters.
"I believe if there are two Liberal parties in front of the people of Canada at the next election, people will vote for the real one," Mr. Topp said of the Mulcair campaign's agenda. "So the strategy that he is offering will not work."
In a statement, Mr. Dewar said that if he wins the leadership race, he will be "in the House of Commons [the following Monday]and ready to take on Stephen Harper in both official languages." A spokesman said that Mr. Dewar "more than held his own" at the Quebec City debate and that his French will continue improving through more hard work.
In an e-mail to party members, Mr. Dewar's campaign vowed that he will fight for traditional NDP values, and not make compromises in a bid to bring the party toward the political centre.
The Mulcair camp, meanwhile, is focusing efforts this week on selling membership cards in Quebec until Saturday's deadline to join the party and be eligible to participate in the one-member, one-vote leadership contest on March 24.
An NDP official said the Mulcair camp's goal of boosting membership to 20,000 in Quebec will not be reached, and that the target is now to get beyond 10,000 members. The result will leave Quebec under-represented in the leadership race, given the party is expected to have more than 100,000 eligible voters.
Still, the Mulcair camp is pleased with the week's events, saying the other candidates are now "in a battle for second place."
With six weeks left in the campaign, however, Mr. Topp dismissed the internal polls released this week as inconsequential.
He added that he will continue to "counter-punch" against Mr. Dewar and MP Peggy Nash, who are focusing on the fact that Mr. Topp has never run for office.
Mr. Topp was initially seen as the front-runner in the race after snagging endorsements from former leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow early in the race. He received the support this week of Mr. Layton's mother, Doris, and his campaign said Mr. Topp is in the lead, according to its canvassing of party members.