Stéphane Dion was underrated and he still is and he is likely to remain so all the way up until the election of the new Liberal leader on Dec. 2.
The Montreal academic arrived in Ottawa 10 years ago and quickly rendered the word charisma obsolete. He had the look of a stick of chalk, an altar boy among the bishops, intrinsically mundane.
He became unity minister. With rapier thrusts that repelled separatist blackmail, he earned intellectual credibility. He helped set new rules for secession and became, with John Manley, one of Jean Chrétien's most prized ministers. Paul Martin left him out of cabinet, but he was soon back in by popular demand.
In Ottawa, Mr. Dion gained a reputation. Many will tell you this is the most sincere, completely unpretentious politician they have ever met. They found a purity and directness to his way of thinking and acting that was unique. He didn't the play the game.
But, despite his progress, when they rolled out the candidates for the Liberal leadership, the Dion name drew yawns. It was all the more curious because, when he describes himself as the most qualified candidate in the field, he cannot be faulted for exaggeration.
Mr. Dion has more federal cabinet experience than all the other candidates combined. He has none of the baggage of a Bob Rae or a Michael Ignatieff. His slate, despite being in the cabinet so long, is clean.
He is the candidate who best bridges the bitter Martin/Chrétien divide in the Liberal Party. On the major issues of the day, global warming and national unity, he has served as minister in each portfolio.
But the focus turned to others in the race, some who had spent a history outside the Grit family. Knifing his way through steak and mushrooms in an Ottawa restaurant, Mr. Dion points out, without bitterness, how many in the media wrote him off because he was too dull. “You wrote that I'm boring. In fact, I am not.”
In fact, aside from his occasionally fractured English, it was about the only fault we could pin on him. No gravitas. But he's been working on it. “You will be surprised,” he says, “at how much I am able to inspire people.”
He sits in fourth place in a race many see as now tilting toward Mr. Rae. But Mr. Dion is moving. His integrity is selling well in private sessions with delegates. He is profiting as well from the stumbling performances of other candidates, particularly that of Mr. Ignatieff.
Gerard Kennedy was causing some concern in the Dion camp. Many thought he might enter the by-election in London, Ont., thereby vaulting his stature above that of provincial politician. With a victory, he would have had precious momentum for the convention. But no dice. Mr. Kennedy looked success in the face, turned and walked away.
The real plus for Mr. Dion, however, is the ace card about which few are talking. Candidates such as Mr. Kennedy, Scott Brison, Ken Dryden and others are going to be more inclined to support Mr. Dion than others because, if they can't win the leadership themselves, they'd much prefer a candidate from Quebec to do so. A Dion victory would mean it would be an anglophone's turn next time. By supporting Mr. Dion, they look to their own futures. It is especially true in the case of Mr. Kennedy, who had dinner with Mr. Dion recently.
At the convention, Mr. Dion has to dispel remaining doubts that he would be a dud as a campaigner by delivering a howitzer of a speech. With that, with eventual support for a Kennedy bloc, he could well pull an upset - one that would spell significant change.
Mr. Rae, who is tied to the Chrétien engine of the party, has his strengths, as do the others. But anyone looking for someone to shake up the politics of this country would look first to Mr. Dion. He is different, a breed part.
In the United States, they're hoping to see the entry of a great truth teller, Senator Barack Obama, in the 2008 presidential race. In Canada, we already have one - one who is ready to tear down the walls of cynicism that engulf politics if the Liberals open the door to him.