Want to be leader of the federal Liberals? Best wait to see if there’s really a party to lead

Justin Trudeau has consistently ruled out running for the federal Liberal leadership ... at least this time around. As he ponders his own political future, Bob Rae would probably like to believe him. Again this weekend, Trudeau maintained that the door on a 2013 bid was closed. That was on the heels of a poll that gave him a two-to-one lead in popular support over the other presumed contenders — including Rae.

Justin Trudeau has consistently ruled out running for the federal Liberal leadership … at least this time around. As he ponders his own political future, Bob Rae would probably like to believe him.

Again this weekend, Trudeau maintained that the door on a 2013 bid was closed. That was on the heels of a poll that gave him a two-to-one lead in popular support over the other presumed contenders — including Rae.

That will not put the issue to rest. Too many Liberals are scouring the landscape for a saviour. A poll like that amounts to more fuel on a runaway fire.

Some of them believe Trudeau has already decided to run but is playing hard to get to generate even more momentum.

Those people note that he has never said he did not aspire to be prime minister.

On the contrary, he has left the door wide open to a leadership run at some point in the future.

The fact is that, on the ground, there is as much evidence of what could easily be construed as an embryonic Trudeau leadership campaign as there is of a resuscitated Rae organization.

Most Liberals consider Rae’s entry to be a foregone conclusion. So far, that perception has generated more negative reviews than enthusiasm.

The weekend poll that kept Trudeau’s name very much on top of the nonofficial leadership list was not particularly kind to Rae.

He was the first pick for Liberal leader of less than 20 per cent of respondents, just marginally ahead of former astronaut Marc Garneau.

Before he gets overly excited, Garneau should consider that similar polls once placed former NHL star Ken Dryden among the leading 2006 Liberal leadership candidates.

He ran a distant fifth with less than five per cent of the vote.

At this juncture, pre-leadership polls are a better measure of the familiarity of one’s name than an assessment of one’s leadership talents.

That being said, Rae is notorious in his own right. Most voters cannot remember a time when he was not on the political scene. His modest ratings suggest that many of the people who thought poorly of his performance as Ontario premier two decades ago have not changed their minds.

That poll was only the latest in a string of poor ones for the Liberals. In spite of the fact that Rae has had a lot more latitude as interim leader than the average political caretaker, the party is as far or further behind the second-place NDP than on election day.

Suppose for the sake of argument that Trudeau and Rae are both testing the leadership waters these days. Under that hypothetical scenario, early indications suggest that Trudeau should run and Rae should retire.

Under rules that allow non-Liberal members to vote for the next leader, Trudeau would be hard to beat. He has the largest following of any member of parliament.

Given all that, there is still one major consideration — beyond missing out on his children growing up — that could keep Trudeau out of the coming campaign.

It is far from clear that a stand-alone Liberal party has much of a future under any leader.

It is also far from obvious that a stand-alone NDP can make the leap to government.

But it may take yet another election to validate the proposition that a separate future for the Liberals and the NDP is one in which they can only live side by side in opposition.

If he entered the Liberal race, Trudeau would be the de facto front-runner.

He is very much the central piece in today’s Liberal leadership puzzle.

But in the big federal picture, the upcoming campaign may be just a sideshow and he may be better advised to wait for a possible NDP/Liberal main event.

After all, if the two parties don’t come together over the next five years or so, it will be because there will still be enough of a Liberal party to be worth leading.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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