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A CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE: THE LIBERALS

Rae steps in as coalition's chief salesman

Dion pushed aside 8 Rae takes charge with Liberal Leader seen as too soft on Harper budget fix Ignatieff hesitates 8 Leadership front-runner says party will be 'thinking hard' until new session

SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER; With a report from Bill Curry

Bob Rae is preparing a coast-to-coast campaign to sell Canadians on the concept of a coalition government, taking over as chief salesman and manoeuvring around Stéphane Dion, whose leadership is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Mr. Rae, the Toronto Centre MP and Liberal leadership candidate, began staking out his territory yesterday as the champion of a coalition government aimed at taking down Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"He's going to carry the can," said one of his chief strategists. "He's going to stand up and let his voice be heard and encourage Liberals to hang in and we can take down Harper and put in a good government that will do the right thing."

Michael Ignatieff, Mr. Rae's main rival for the leadership and his former best friend, was not as aggressive in his approach, telling reporters that Liberals will be "thinking hard" and "responsibly" until the Harper Conservatives deliver their budget on Jan. 27.

Many of his supporters are uncomfortable with the idea of a coalition government with the NDP supported by the Bloc Québécois. They have advised him to stay out of a coalition cabinet if one is ever formed. Yesterday, there was a hint of Mr. Ignatieff's hesitancy after it became known he was the very last Liberal to sign a letter endorsing the coalition, which was sent to the Governor-General before her meeting with Mr. Harper.

The Liberal whip had asked caucus members to come to his office at 11 p.m. Wednesday or 7:30 a.m. yesterday to sign the letter; Mr. Ignatieff finally put pen to paper around 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rae left no doubt where he stood on the coalition concept. In a remarkable intervention during a raucous closed-door caucus meeting yesterday, Mr. Rae interrupted Mr. Dion, taking him on for being too conciliatory toward Mr. Harper.

The Prime Minister had just dodged a confidence vote, which he would have surely lost, by winning permission from the Governor-General to shut down Parliament until late January.

Mr. Dion appeared to be open to changing his mind about defeating Mr. Harper's government, saying that a "monumental change" on Mr. Harper's part would alter that.

That phrase angered some Liberals, who began shouting at Mr. Dion, accusing him of not going far enough, according to a caucus insider. That is when Mr. Rae approached the microphone, telling Mr. Dion that even "monumental change" was not acceptable.

Mr. Dion appeared shocked, the insider said.

While the Governor-General provided Mr. Harper with a reprieve yesterday in the game of parliamentary chicken that has been playing out for the past week, the NDP and the Bloc are still vowing to keep the coalition together. But the clear victim in yesterday's proceedings was Mr. Dion, who has put so much of his personal capital into the initiative that he was hoping to lead.

Just days after emerging as a hero with an accord in hand, he appeared yesterday as a wounded leader who botched a major national address with an amateur video that didn't even get to air on time.

"He cooked up this deal," the Rae strategist said. "He did not cut people in. He drove it and his team and the results were there for all to see. ... The question for the Liberal Party now is, in a world where we're not likely to have Dion in the deal, do we get rid of the deal along with Dion or do we keep the deal?"

Several MPs suggested to Mr. Dion yesterday that a new leader should be in place by January in the event the government is defeated over the budget, and the Governor-General grants the Prime Minister dissolution rather than choosing the coalition government.

"We need to be prepared," Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison said, according to an insider. "We need to get the leader in place." Although Mr. Brison praised Mr. Dion for weakening Mr. Harper's leadership by successfully forming the coalition, he and several other MPs said Canadians have to be given the chance to get to know the new Liberal leader. If there was a snap election, it wouldn't make sense for Mr. Dion to run for Prime Minister only to be replaced by someone else in May, they said.

Scarborough MP Jim Karygiannis broke ranks outside of caucus, saying he wants Mr. Dion to leave "sooner than later."

Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae, however, dismissed any notion of replacing Mr. Dion before the May leadership convention.

"Questions of leadership are not of the hour," said Mr. Ignatieff, who criticized Mr. Karygiannis for calling for the leader to resign.

The Rae strategist said Mr. Rae isn't even bothering to worry about a leadership change, however: "We can't wait around for that because if we tie our view on the coalition to sorting out leadership mechanics, the whole thing is going to fall apart. So Rae is just saying, 'Gun the engine, man, let's go.' "

The advantage yesterday went to Mr. Rae, as the leadership race is evolving into a bare-knuckle fight that doesn't play to Mr. Ignatieff's more patrician strengths. Mr. Ignatieff evoked the ghost of Aristotle in a scrum, while a combative Mr. Rae called the Harper government "illegitimate" and accused the PM of asking for prorogation because he's "afraid to show up for work."

Still, Mr. Ignatieff is winning the leadership race, according to a new Globe and Mail/CTV poll by the Strategic Counsel. The poll shows that 32 per cent of Canadians say Mr. Ignatieff is the "preferred Liberal winner," compared to 22 per cent for Mr. Rae and 9 per cent for New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc; 37 per cent of respondents don't know.

And while Mr. Ignatieff is to travel to New Brunswick today, Mr. Rae and his team are preparing to attend rallies across the country in support of a coalition government. He is also going to take to the airwaves.

"He's going to campaign for this thing because the Conservatives are going to unleash a full-style campaign against the coalition," the Rae strategist said. "And Rae is going to war on that ... Rae is planting his flag and he's planting it from coast to coast."

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