Stephane Dion is the compromise candidate who may just succeed in holding the other Stephen, Prime Minister Harper, to a minority in the next election, and replacing him in the election after that.
Third of three front-runners, he may emerge by default after the other
two have been examined and found wanting. Michael Ignatieff is hounded by his hawkish views on Iraq, Bob Rae by the Ontario NDP debacle that paved the way for Mike Harris. Dion may come down the middle as the most moderate with the least baggage.
He is the only one of the three with federal cabinet experience, and one of the few frontbenchers who came unscathed through the Chretien-Martin feud. Dropped from the 2003 Martin cabinet because of his stand on the Clarity Act, he later came back as a popular and effective minister of the environment.
Dion combines a keen mind with a genuine humility rare in a politician. He lacks the manor-born air of a Trudeau or Martin and the compensating truculence of a Chretien. He offers Stephen Harper a challenge in the race to make inroads with the middle class.
Then there's the Quebec factor. Paul Martin may have lived in Montreal but is seen as an anglophone by French-speaking Quebecers who see Dion as one of their own. Many Quebecois have not forgotten it is "their turn" to have a francophone at the national helm.
There is more reason than tradition to take this seriously. The Liberal Party has century-old roots in Quebec. It would be folly to turn its back on these as Harper is seeking to enlarge his toehold there. Dion is one Quebec Liberal untainted by the sponsorship scandal. He is therefore an ideal candidate to rebuild the party's fortunes there.
Canada still needs such alternating traditions. For 80 years the Conservatives have provided regular rotation of leaders between the East and West. The practices of the two parties complement each other and lead to a broad, more representative sweep of leaders.
Dion has proven an impressive debater. During the same-sex marriage issue, he wrote an open letter challenging Harper to debate in either language in any part of Canada. Harper did not reply.
If Dion succeeds in becoming Opposition leader, Harper will no longer be able to duck. He'll have to reply point by point to a man of equal intelligence, who has held major portfolios in government, moved on the international stage and has strong backing in the province where the PM hopes to gain a majority. As Canadians outside Quebec see the strong counterpoint Dion presents to the Conservatives, he will start to grow on them.
Stephane Dion has another thing going for him. He was an environment minister of substance who won international agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012.
If he becomes leader, he promises to make environment one of three pillars of the Liberal program, along with the traditional two of economic development and social justice. He has said economic growth that is not sustainable is not development, and human rights that do not include the Earth are not enough.
Before going to the polls, the Conservatives are going to have to show they have something more in their environmental package. They must do this whether they believe in the environment or not, simply because the public is demanding more than the slogan of a made-in-Canada solution.
Dion is well placed to ride this wave. As he grows on Canadians as an individual, the environment will be growing on us as an issue, making him a man for the long haul.
In two of their last three leadership conventions, the Liberals opted to anoint a "winner" who could walk right into the Prime Minister's Office. John Turner and Paul Martin both proved a disappointment and led their party to defeat. In the other contest the Liberals opted for the less flashy, more solid Jean Chretien, who could lead them in Opposition and provide an alternative for Canadians when the Mulroney Conservatives collapsed.
The golden-haired boys -- Allan Rock, Brian Tobin and Frank McKenna -- have chosen to pass the race for Opposition leader. This is to the party's advantage. Those who see a walk-in PM in Michael Ignatieff are ignoring present realities and taking a big gamble.
Better a man who can perform solidly in Opposition and halt erosion in Quebec than a flash-in-the-pan that may fizzle. If star quality is needed, let it be acquired on the job.
Stephane Dion is the default candidate who can deliver here. The fact he shares a name with a singing star may add to his star quality and help his recognition among les anglais.
David Watts is an Edmonton writer
Stephane Dion has qualities to take Liberals far
Cabinet experience, Quebec link among strengths
Course à la chefferie du PLC