The Liberal Fallout

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The end for Paul Martin was simple, sad and bittersweet. By 10 p.m. E.T. on election night--just as West Coast polls closed--TV pundits were already declaring that Canada's 21st Prime Minister was about to be pushed aside by the 22nd. Soon afterward, looking more relaxed than he ever had during the campaign, Martin stepped up to a podium emblazoned with party slogans to recall that on one of his appearances, he had met a little girl who inadvertently called him Paul--and then apologized for the lapse in protocol. "'Oh, I'm sorry, Prime Minister,'" he recalled her saying. Then he added softly, "Well, let me tell you, she can call me Paul again."

By the end, Martin's defeat had been widely expected. The surprise was that soon you can't call him Liberal leader either. His postelection announcement that he won't helm the party in any future vote has set off a mad scramble that suggests the Liberals' top brass are more concerned with recapturing power than examining why they lost Canadians' support. "This is a low point in the history of the party," acknowledges Liberal Senator Francis Fox, a former Cabinet minister who was a top adviser to Martin in the early, upbeat days of his two-year rule. A low point, yes, but one that at least a few party veterans view as an overdue opportunity to heal internal wounds and rebuild. "It's time to regroup," says departing Environment Minister Stéphane Dion, one of the 13 Grits (out of 21) to survive the combined Tory-Bloc onslaught in Quebec. "It's not the end of the world to be the opposition." Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party, with 10 new seats, is poised to exploit Liberal disarray.

The Liberals' next biennial convention isn't due until spring 2007, but insiders are already lobbying for a leadership confab as early as this fall. That would give would-be candidates less than six months to recruit delegates and build a campaign team--one reason that pressure is already building for hopefuls to declare themselves. Former Justice Minister Martin Cauchon was among the first to sniff the winds: he called a prospective supporter (unsuccessfully) three times for lunch. Others, like former Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, powerful Toronto-area M.P.s Maurizio Bevilacqua and Joe Volpe and former hockey great Ken Dryden, are allowing speculation to float about their prospective candidacies. Still others are lurking on the sidelines, including former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, who, as a political novice, won a hard-fought race in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, and former Tory Belinda Stronach, who, if she ran, would earn the distinction of having contended for the leadership of two parties. Some, meanwhile, have dramatically stepped aside. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley bowed out publicly in a Jan. 26 Globe and Mail Op-Ed piece, while declaring that the party must, "with humility, acknowledge the breach of trust" caused by the sponsorship scandal.

But the contender who seems to most flutter the Liberals' hearts--and those of their Bay Street backers--hasn't yet entered the field. Former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna made front-page headlines when he resigned last week as U.S. ambassador, a step observers consider a prelude to his long-expected return to politics after sojourns in diplomacy and corporate life. But despite having been elevated by default into the front runner's slot, McKenna, 58, has given no hint of his plans. "He's interested in public life," says a confidant. "But running for the leadership would mean a lot of sacrifices."

Why are the Liberals in such a rush? Party leaders say they don't want to give Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper too much time to consolidate his national support. "The longer we wait to choose a leader, the more problems we'll have," says an Ontario strategist who declines to be identified by name.

Perhaps, but other Liberal stalwarts say what the party needs most right now is a lengthy period of re-examination to help it reconnect with voters it once took for granted. "People have to define what it is to be a Liberal again," says Tom Axworthy, a former aide to Pierre Trudeau.

That resonates with the party rank and file as well. "We need to renew," says Daria Kapnick, 24, a law student who joined a crowd of somber Martin supporters at Buffet Sorrento in Montreal on election night. "We have potential. Now we need to explore it as a party." Memo to all Liberal hopefuls: she just might have a point.