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The Liberal leadership: And then there was one

Ten months have passed since a battered Paul Martin announced his resignation as Liberal leader, and still no obvious successor has emerged. The challengers to replace him have been put through a gruelling process that cut the field by half, but four candidates still have a serious shot: Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Stéphane Dion and Gerard Kennedy. As Liberal delegates prepare to gather in Montreal for next weekend's vote, the stage is set for one of the more dramatic federal leadership conventions in Canadian political memory. All this makes the work of the convention inherently risky.

The problem is not that there is an absence of impressive people interested in the job. It's just that not one of them is perfect for it. Each of the contenders boasts attributes of leadership, and each reveals areas of weakness and vulnerability. If you could mix and match the characteristics of those four candidates, the result would be sure prime-ministerial material. But when they vote on Dec. 2, Liberals will have to settle for something less.

Early on, Michael Ignatieff was the undisputed front-runner, and there were moments when he seemed poised to build an insurmountable lead. It is not hard to see the attraction of Mr. Ignatieff to Liberals who are engaged in a perpetual search for the next Pierre Trudeau. He is a public intellectual who successfully stormed the citadels of enlightenment during his years as an expatriate. He projects presence and authority. He knows how to work a salon.

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Yet there is a jangling sense of unreality about him, a whiff of dilettantism. Many believe he is worth the risk, a risk that inevitably comes when a figure with little political and no managerial experience is thrust into national political leadership. Mr. Ignatieff fulfilled some expectations by demonstrating that he has no shortage of ideas, but he has also disappointed because some of those ideas have been contradictory or ill-considered.

Canada's institutions are fragile, and the country has spent too much of its recent history in wrenching debates over matters of "rights, recognition and nationalism," to borrow a line from one of Mr. Ignatieff's books. And sure enough, barely more than a year after he arrived on the political scene, Mr. Ignatieff was right in the thick of things, helping to incite a divisive debate over whether Quebec is a "nation." He said he had little choice in the matter, that he was simply responding to a desire from some federalists in Quebec. That is an inadequate explanation. Leaders are expected to shape the agenda, not be prisoners of it.

His ruminations on "officializing" special recognition for Quebec did more than change the dynamic of the Liberal leadership race. Without the lifeline thrown by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday, they threatened to damage the Liberal Party and the country. While Mr. Ignatieff is an impressive individual, this is hardly the stuff of impressive leadership.

But if not the front-runner, then who?

Gerard Kennedy is the kind of talent the Liberals need to attract to rebuild the federal party. He is a strong communicator (at least in English) and an impressive organizer, and he stands unequivocally for change and renewal. He has infused the campaign with badly needed energy. His record as director of the largest food bank in the country and as education minister in Ontario shows that he possesses abilities to match his ambitions.

However, it is difficult to overlook his struggle with the French language, and a sometimes superficial grasp of important issues. His woefully poor showing in Quebec is a serious, perhaps fatal, flaw. Still, this race has served him well. He is a man to watch, but not this time.

Of all the candidates, Bob Rae carried the most baggage into the race. His record as a failed NDP premier of Ontario has presented a formidable obstacle, especially in that province, where the memory of big deficits and ideological insouciance remains strong. Those Liberals he fought during the early 1990s have understandable difficulty getting their head around the idea of Mr. Rae as their prospective federal saviour. Yet despite his prickliness on the subject, he is prepared to admit his errors, and has demonstrated a capacity to learn from them.

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Because of Mr. Ignatieff's controversial musings on the nation debate, the Lebanon crisis and, allied with that, the allegation of a war crime, Mr. Rae's campaign was transformed. His deportment up to then had left some wondering whether a fire still burns in his belly, but Mr. Ignatieff's stumbles galvanized Mr. Rae. His experience leading a government, and his ability to answer a question without incident, suddenly became an asset. He emerged as the steady hand, with some Liberals apparently preferring his old mistakes to Mr. Ignatieff's new ones.

Mr. Rae is both a pragmatist and an idealist. His time out of politics was spent contributing to the wellbeing of the country and the world, investing him with a breadth of experience. Liberals could do worse than entrust him with their leadership. A Rae-Harper contest would provide stark choices and great political theatre.

Finally, there is Stéphane Dion. He faced many obstacles not of his own making. Despite being a veteran of the cabinets of both Jean Chrétien and Mr. Martin, he failed to attract the support of the party establishment, which largely split between Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae. A sense that it is the turn of a leader from outside Quebec has worked against him. And while his English is better than that of many native English speakers, this is masked somewhat by a strong accent.

Yet Mr. Dion has a record in national politics that demands respect. He was responsible for the Clarity Act, firmly establishing the federal government's case against unilateral secession and limiting the potential for separatist trickery. He withstood the basest personal attacks, and, in battle, never flinched. In fact, he is arguably the most courageous Canadian politician of his generation.

One sign of successful leadership is the ability to make the most of every opportunity that presents itself, and Mr. Dion has certainly done that during the current campaign. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for in common sense. He possesses a remarkably clear-eyed view of the possibilities. That he has been the most lucid on the crucial unity file is unsurprising, but he has also presented a compelling vision of a 21st-century environmental economy. If a leader is going to exercise mastery over any files, those are among the most important.

But Mr. Dion has mastered more than that. Through the campaign, he has shown that he has mastered the art of politics. He has gained a love of the game, perhaps from watching the likes of Mr. Chrétien close up. While he has been burdened with an image as a stiff academic, he has added humour, passion and humility to his defining attributes of intelligence and principle.

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There is no perfect choice for Liberal delegates, but Stéphane Dion comes the closest to deserving their support for leader.

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