During the leadership campaign, Bob Rae, Gerard Kennedy and Stephane Dion knew one thing: Stephen Harper's sharp turn to the right is what could hand the sponsorship-scandal-battered Liberal Party its ticket back to power.
The surrealistic debate on the Quebec nation that was launched by Michael Ignatieff stole the spotlight from the real goal of that race: Find an ideologically credible leader who could offer a clear, progressive-minded alternative to Harper's agenda.
Many believed, including myself, that Rae, a former NDP premier, was the logical choice to do just that. But watching Dion take Harper on in a clear, articulate manner since he has become leader, could bring some to revisit that thought.
A policy-driven alternative to Harper is the Liberals' best shot at winning seats in Ontario and British Columbia, including taking some from the NDP. It could also win back Quebec federalists who were disgusted by the sponsorship scandal. That could give the Liberals a minority government at least.
When he became a cabinet minister in 1996, ending his career as a political-science professor, Dion had his own take on George Bernard Shaw's famous "those who cannot do, teach." He recalled asking himself if he would prove that "those who can teach, can also do." He's on his way to proving his case.
For sovereignists, this means trouble at a time when their own leadership fails to impress. It's striking how much Dion is the antithesis to Andre Boisclair. Dion is an intellectual who has extensive academic training in political science and sociology. His surprise victory also confirms that he has become an astute tactician.
For the Parti Quebecois, this contrast is the result of not holding a real leadership convention last year, unlike the federal Liberals. The PQ instead chose a phone-in vote that elected the candidate who sold the most membership cards, not the one with the most substance.
Acting more and more like the PQ's substitute leader, Bernard Landry said that Dion's election was a step toward sovereignty. That's what many sovereignists thought when Dion went into politics. It was a mistake then. It's a mistake now.
Lucien Bouchard and Landry chose to despise Dion, instead of recruiting their own, equally smart and determined counterpart at intergovernmental affairs. That was a mistake, too.
This week, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was more cautious, calling Dion a formidable adversary. Duceppe, the one who'll face Dion in Parliament, knows too well that Dion is not be taken lightly.
When he joined Chretien's government, Dion went from an intellectual to more of an ideologue. As environment minister and as leader, the intellectual has started to return. There's no mistaking that this intellectual has now become a savvy politician.
Perhaps Duceppe also knows, along with those who worked closely with Dion, that if Dion becomes prime minister, he could prove a surprising consensus builder with the provinces on a number of concrete policy issues.
In this era of image-driven politics where public-relations experts are invited to dissect politicians' images disguised as real political analysis, there's something to be said for a party that picks as its leader a shy, charisma-free man who thinks before he speaks.
While the Bloc continues to do a decent job in Ottawa, Dion's election at a time when the PQ's leadership is weak could be a problem for sovereignists. Instead of despising Dion, they should ponder their own leader's troubling ineffectiveness.
Even Gerald Larose, president of the Council for Sovereignty, says that Harper is so unpalatable to him that he finds the prospect of a Dion minority government more acceptable. Could we be seeing the beginning of a period where the right-wing/left-wing debate will overshadow the federalist-sovereignist divide?
If so, this would be the most visible manifestation of the weakness of the PQ leadership, which fewer and fewer sovereignists see as having the credibility and intellectual strength to carry its own option.
Sovereignists would be wrong to write off Dion
New Liberal leader could shine in comparison with Boisclair