For years, Stéphane Dion was the most-reviled politician in Quebec. He was the so-called "arch-federalist" that all sovereigntists and nationalists loved to hate and whom most francophone federalists were unwilling to defend. He was the father of the Clarity Act that even Paul Martin dared not support. Because of his mousy face, La Presse cartoonist Serge Chapleau used to represent him as a rat, with small pointed ears, its mustachioed muzzle contracted in an arrogant sneer, and the tail emerging from beneath his suit.
One would wonder how anyone could survive such treatment. But he did. The frail, bespectacled academic obviously had nerves of steel and an unusual resilience. And, in an unexpected turn of events, the former Liberal minister has become the surprise of the Liberal leadership campaign.
Michael Ignatieff was expected to shine. He did, up to a point - he is apparently the front-runner - but he soon became embroiled in various controversies and he will not be a shoo-in.
Bob Rae was expected to run into problems because of his poor record as Ontario premier. Indeed, his campaign clearly lacks steam, even though he remains Mr. Ignatieff's main opponent.
But there were no expectations about Stéphane Dion. At the outset of the campaign, he was dismissed as an also-ran. He was unpopular in his native province, he had no charisma, he had a nerdish attitude, and he didn't look or sound like a leader. Yet, Mr. Dion is actually running a surprisingly good campaign.
He clearly stood out in the candidates debates in Winnipeg and Moncton, and some go as far as predicting that he might end up as the "dark horse" à la Joe Clark in the 1976 Conservative leadership convention - the compromise choice after several ballots.
"People who assumed he was just going to be the kind of polite professor in the race, a nice guy but not really suited for this game, they are revising their opinions," National Post columnist Andrew Coyne recently said on a CTV panel. "He's shown feistiness, he's obviously got the horse power intellectually and he's proved himself to be a bit shrewd politically. He may well be in the final three or four with a good chance in this race."
In another CTV panel following the debate in Winnipeg, The Globe and Mail's Campbell Clark and Jane Taber, as well as Maclean's writer Paul Wells, had the same opinion. "Dion was able to get the message across in a pithy way, and he was far more passionate than people expected him to be," said Mr. Clark. "Dion was pretty hot. He shone," said Ms. Taber. "Dion absolutely rocked yesterday," said Mr. Wells.
The French-speaking press was even more complimentary. La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal, who attended both debates, wrote that "Dion has found his political persona. He is funny, relaxed, combative without being arrogant. He's by far the most credible and the most convincing. He knows about the issues better than the other contenders, he's the most solid intellectually, and the only one who's really able to engage in a debate, whereas the others look like tourists visiting the country."
Michel C. Auger, the political columnist for Le Soleil, concurred: "Only Dion, Ignatieff and Rae have the qualities needed to become prime minister of a country that's a member of the G8."
Mr. Dion's "rehabilitation" actually started before the leadership race. The turning point came when he was appointed federal environment minister - a responsibility he took, of course, very seriously, and that changed his image in Quebec, which has recently converted en masse to the new religion of the environment. His name became synonymous with the magic word, Kyoto. The coverage he received as president of the UN Climate Change Conference in Montreal was hugely positive.
The rat cartoon is a thing of the past.