To spend a weekday evening covering Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau on the byelection trail in the Montreal riding of Bourassa is to catch a glimpse of a study in contrast that bodes trouble for the Liberals in the next general election.
Bourassa — the former riding of Montreal’s mayor-elect Denis Coderre — is as safe a seat as the Liberals still hold in Quebec and the widespread expectation, including in NDP circles, is that it will not switch parties when it goes to the polls on Nov. 25.
Yet, as he introduced his candidate Stephane Moraille to commuters one day this week, the NDP leader looked like he would not have wanted to be doing anything other than shaking hands in the pursuit of a lost cause on the coldest night of the season to date.
Mulcair has landed in a sweet political spot this fall. He is basking in the glow of positive reviews of his performance in the House of Commons over the Senate scandal.
At the same time, his party has to meet rather modest expectations on Nov. 25.
The three other ridings at play in Toronto and in Manitoba also have no NDP history. A decent finish in Liberal-held Toronto Centre and Bourassa would be both nice and good enough.
A victory in one or the other would be the stuff that NDP dreams and Liberal nightmares are made of.
Trudeau could hardly have asked for a more propitious riding than Bourassa for his first electoral test in Quebec. It is home to a solid Liberal constituency.
Candidate Emmanuel Dubourg relinquished a seat in the National Assembly to run federally and a section of Bourassa was part of his provincial riding.
In Quebec, the federal Liberal establishment is still traumatized by memories of the loss of the formerly safe seat of Outremont to Mulcair in the early days of Stéphane Dion’s leadership.
It is leaving as little as possible to chance in Bourassa.
On Tuesday night, Liberal MPs and apparatchiks came out in force for Trudeau’s appearance at a campaign rally.
But if the size of the crowd that packed the hall had cause to warm lonely Liberal hearts, the same cannot be said of the main act of the evening.
On a bad day, Michael Ignatieff or Stephane Dion would have been hard-pressed to deliver a flatter stump speech than Trudeau did.
Reading from notes, the rookie leader delivered rambling remarks that belied his years on the public speaking circuit.
If Trudeau wrote that text, he needs a speech writer. And if someone else wrote it, he or she needs a new assignment.
The NDP’s Quebec caucus has been on the job for two years.
By now Trudeau’s dismissive depiction of its members as “accidental” MPs has become a tired cliché.
His contention that Stephen Harper now stands for everything he used to criticize when he was in opposition is counterintuitive given that it was a Liberal government that the current prime minister was then taking to task.
As for the belaboured claim that the Liberals have become leading agents of ethical virtue because they are posting their expenses online, it is unlikely to stir many voters’ souls in the real bread-and-butter world that lies outside the Parliament Hill precinct.
The Nov. 25 byelections provide an early opportunity to see Trudeau lead a campaign.
If they had been flies on the Liberal wall in Montreal on Tuesday night, Mulcair and Harper would have liked what they saw.
In the unrelenting heat of a general election, Trudeau’s bizarre comments on China last week could have sent his campaign into a tailspin and his overscripted performance in Bourassa would have reinforced the perception that he can only avoid putting his foot in his mouth by sticking to banalities.
If this were the real thing rather than a handful of byelections, the Liberals would be in trouble.
Whatever the results on Nov. 25, they should not be fooled into thinking that their leader is ready to part with his training wheels just yet.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.