At the outset of this interminable NDP leadership race – it started in September, seven months ago! – Brian Topp was the first to declare his candidacy, and he looked like a shoo-in.
He had been among those who were at Jack Layton's bedside in his final days, and had collaborated in the writing of his political "testament." Not only was he touted as Mr. Layton's anointed heir, but he had the support of former leader Ed Broadbent and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, the NDP's most respected figures.
He had been a loyal party member all his life. He had a unique knowledge of the country, having successively lived in Quebec, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario. His French was better than Stephen Harper's and Jack Layton's. His credentials among the labour movement – a traditional pillar of the NDP – were impeccable, and he knew a great deal about policy and political strategy.
There was only one problem. The man who wanted to be general had never held a rifle in his hand.
At the ripe age of 51, Mr. Topp, the perennial bureaucrat, had never run for office and never delivered a public speech in his life outside party meetings. Even now, as he vied for the post of Opposition leader, he was eluding the question of choosing a riding, shying away from running in a by-election in Mr. Layton's Toronto riding – he couldn't run two campaigns simultaneously, he claimed.
It looked as if he was passively waiting for an MP with a safe NDP riding to eventually resign and offer him his seat, and this in itself said something about the man. As bright and affable as he was, Mr. Topp lacked drive. He had no political experience, and one couldn't even imagine him on the hustings.
Thomas Mulcair was everything Mr. Topp was not: an abrasive, sharp-tongued man, a seasoned and tough politician who had tackled huge challenges, from his first victory as an NDP candidate in 2007 in Outremont (a Liberal stronghold if ever there was one), to the unbelievable election of 59 NDP MPs in a province that had always been foreign territory to the party. Much has been said about the Layton effect, but the seeds of this amazing harvest were planted by Mr. Mulcair in the years leading up to the 2011 election.
Yet, Mr. Mulcair started the race far behind his major rival. He was a relative newcomer to the NDP and carried some baggage from his years as a Liberal cabinet minister. He was a centrist in a party where ideology trumps pragmatism, and his political base was shallow, since Quebec counted for less than 2 per cent of the total party membership.
Yet, six months later, he has become the front-runner in a race that was Mr. Topp's to lose. He has the support of 43 MPs, he raised more money than any other contender, and, predictably, he's the one who's under attack.
Some left-wing Dippers have started a nasty campaign against him on the Internet. More interestingly, an anonymous Tory "official" told a reporter that Mr. Mulcair, after he resigned from the Quebec Liberal Party, would have joined the Conservatives in exchange for a promise of a cabinet post.
Such a conversation – if it happened – leaves no trace, so we'll never know if this is true, but what this timely leak shows is that Thomas Mulcair is the man the Harper government doesn't want to see at the helm of the Official Opposition.