As the Liberal delegates are about to congregate in Montreal to choose a new leader, which one of the front-runners would have the best chance to seduce Quebeckers? Until now, the leadership race hasn't generated much excitement; none of the candidates has really made waves in the province.
Gerard Kennedy is off the radar, since he can hardly speak French. Stéphane Dion, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff are the only players, although the last two wouldn't be recognized by many if they were walking down rue Ste-Catherine. Predictably, Mr. Dion is the only contender about whom most Quebeckers have an opinion.
Stéphane Dion would polarize voters. Many, even within the "soft nationalist" circles, resent him for being an uncompromising champion of federalism. His image softened, though, as soon as he embraced the environment portfolio. The environment is a wildly popular cause in Quebec and his articulate views about the link between the environment and the economy could be an asset for the Quebec Liberals.
Yet, he remains the cerebral, slightly arrogant professor prone to lecturing. He exudes no warmth and has few social skills. But Quebeckers like their politicians to be intellectuals and at ease with ideas, so Mr. Dion would gain respect if not love.
Quebeckers might feel quite comfortable with Bob Rae. His accent in French is closer to the average Quebecker than Mr. Ignatieff's, and his relaxed, avuncular manner could be reassuring - if he's able to break all the ties that still bind him to the NDP and make people forget his failures as Ontario premier.
Of the three major candidates, he is the only career politician, and has a wider range of contacts in Quebec than Mr. Dion, who was a university professor before moving to Ottawa, or Mr. Ignatieff, who knows even less about Quebec than he knows about contemporary Canada. Mr. Rae, being the only pragmatist politician of the trio, might be better equipped than his adversaries to strike deals (always a necessity when treading into Quebec's emotional politics), but his overly centralist views will not help him in the province. He is the candidate of the Chrétien clan, which might be a plus in terms of organization but a handicap outside the party.
He certainly doesn't project an image of renewal. His campaign was tepid, devoid of sparkling ideas. He would need to erase the perception that he's just a left-leaning clone of Jean Chrétien. And, of course, his abysmal performance as Ontario premier would come back to haunt him in Quebec, as elsewhere. Yet, his image as a sensible, experienced and trustworthy politician with a good record in various capacities in the public service would serve him well.
Michael Ignatieff is another story - a shot in the dark. He could do wonders or he could fail miserably. His blunder-filled campaign has not been promising and some of his opportunistic zigzags were especially disquieting. Was it just the beginning of a learning process?
More than anything else, Mr. Ignatieff is a writer, and a very talented one to boot. His speeches can be inspiring. He exudes a kind of romanticism and has a warm approach to people - something francophone Quebeckers appreciate. He certainly has more charm than Mr. Dion and more imagination (too much maybe?) than Mr. Rae. In Quebec, his earlier support for the Iraq war will not help. However, his stand on the "Quebec nation" will, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the rug out from under the Liberals with his surprise resolution on the "Québécois" being a "nation." (Here is an important nuance that went largely unnoticed: By using the French word "Québécois" in English, Mr. Harper makes it clear that the "nation" he refers to, far from being the political territory of the province, is the French Canadian community; in Quebec, the word "Québécois" often stands for "French Canadian.")
Still, Mr. Ignatieff will be credited in the province for having been the first politician in many years to raise the issue of Quebec's recognition. But apart from this, Mr. Ignatieff's performance as a political leader is anybody's guess.