At the first chance for Ontario Liberals to see their federal leadership candidates up close, Bob Rae is a curious presence on the crowded stage at the Sheraton Centre. The silver-haired former preem is as much a conundrum for the party he's joined as for the one he's left behind.
Certainly, he more than holds his own before the 1,000-plus Libs in attendance at last weekend's policy convention, the room absolutely silent as a skeptical but intrigued audience strains to get a sense of the political interloper presumptuously asking to be their leader.
As NDPers know well, Rae is at his best striking a moral pose. That's what he's doing tonight, decrying the Harper government's outrageous cancellation of the Kelowna Accord on native self-government, reached between all 10 provinces and the former federal regime. A "travesty and a disgrace," Rae pronounces, adding that "when the Crown makes a promise, the Crown ought to keep its promise." The crowd offers approval in the form of the evening's loudest applause.
Though these are early days in a campaign that culminates in a December convention in Montreal, there are glimpses this weekend of possible scenarios favourable to Rae.
For example, Gerard Kennedy turns in a surprisingly flat performance. The former Grit minister of education unwisely accentuates his negatives in his speech, referring to his imperfect French and his lack of a university education. It already looks like Kennedy will have difficulty being the vehicle for progressive Liberals he was in the provincial party leadership race a decade ago.
There's also the unexpectedly strong showing by the only Quebec candidate, Stéphane Dion, who plays on his substantive record as the cabinet minister dealing with enviro and constitutional issues. The Chretien loyalist will later this night spend 45 minutes in the Rae hospitality suite, a sign of the rapport between the two and an indication of where Dion could send his delegates if he fails to make it to the final ballot.
But as off-putting as the prospect of a former NDP premier leading their party is for Liberals, for the party of Jack Layton it could be an out-and-out nightmare. If strategic voting was a political millstone in past campaigns for the federal NDP, Rae at the Liberal helm could force social dems to fight for their very existence.
How does a man who broke new ground for the NDP feel about inflicting collateral damage on the party to which he devoted 20 years of his life? That's what I want to find out as I head on Saturday afternoon to a suite on the 34th floor of the hotel.
As we take our seats, Rae's handlers disappear and he helps himself to a pear on the side table. The leadership contender who's going out of his way to strike a casual pose - "Call me Bob,' his website invites - is a man transformed since the last time I met him on his gloomy campaign bus days before Mike Harris toppled his government. That recollection appears to bring his innate wariness back to the surface. "Do you have an axe to grind?' he asks.
No, I assure him. I just want to see how this story turns out. So do many of his friends, it seems.
He tells me many NDP acquaintances are keeping an open mind as they await the fate of what he originally thought was a "long-shot" campaign. He calls his quest for the Liberal prize "outside-the-box thinking," and reminds me this isn't the first time he has embarked on such a gambit.
In 1985, when the Ontario Tories came up short in seats, "there was a lot of resistance" in the NDP to the accord with the Liberals that freed Ontario of the Tory yoke it had endured for more than 40 years.
A similar opportunity came up after Harris's first term, he says. He approached fellow NDPers about working out an arrangement with the Liberals, "a loose something in which both parties would obtain their identity" and where the two parties would figure out who had the best chance to defeat the Tory in each riding.
"I would raise this in conversation with people. I found a complete brick wall in the NDP. It was something they were not prepared to contemplate."
In the world according to Rae, we are at another important juncture. Stephen Harper's Tories are posing a threat to the national consensus. But the NDP still sees no difference between the two "mainline" parties, as the father of medicare, Tommy Douglas, called them - a ridiculous assertion, Rae says, that has become part of NDP mythology.
Have his values changed? "I still see myself strongly as a person who believes in the power of the public good, in the pubic interest, in public investment." He wouldn't call himself a social democrat, though. "You don't want adjectives getting in the way of what you're trying to say."
The NDP, he says, "is a very conservative party, and the likelihood of it changing is much less than the likelihood of the Liberals being open to change. The flexibility of the Liberal party, which has long been the subject of jokes, is a real advantage. It's deeply imbued with a sense of pragmatism that allows it to embrace change."
And the NDP does not have a monopoly on union support. A substantial number of unionists - notably teachers and workers in the building trades - are active in the Liberal party, he says.
So would he try to build on that, I ask, by supporting changes in federal labour law to make it easier to organize workers in the new areas of the knowledge economy, whose importance he has talked about so much this weekend?
He shifts in his leather chair. "I'd really like to talk to people about that," he says in a strained tone that suggests otherwise. "I don't have a fixed view. It's a question of looking at what's doable, of how much interest there is."
Perhaps there's a limit to his flexibility in his new political home.