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New Democrats gather in Ottawa to pick fill-in for ailing Jack Layton

New Democrats are vowing to use ailing leader Jack Layton's leave of absence to show their party is more than a one-man show.

Team, team, team. That was the refrain as New Democrat MPs gathered Wednesday to choose a temporary replacement for Layton, who is battling a second bout with cancer.

"The party is bigger than any one person because that's the way Jack built it," said Winnipeg MP Pat Martin.

"We're absolutely determined to continue to work together as a team. We know that's what he would want," echoed Windsor MP Joe Comartin.

"In fact, the health problems that Jack is having are going to encourage us to be even stronger."

The sudden emphasis on team is in stark contrast to the spring election campaign, which focused almost exclusively on the leader. Layton has consistently been more popular than his party and New Democrats rode his personal appeal to a historic breakthrough on May 2, capturing 103 seats and official Opposition status.

In Quebec in particular, voters swung massively to the NDP largely because of Layton, not his party, his policies or his candidates. Indeed, some of the 59 New Democrats elected in Quebec were complete unknowns in their ridings, in some cases never having even visited the regions they now represent.

With Layton abruptly sidelined, the party's lofty goal of forming the government in the next election could be even harder to accomplish. The NDP could find itself struggling to hang on to its gains from the last election, much less build on them.

An emaciated and raspy-voiced Layton announced Monday that he's taking a leave of absence to fight a new, unspecified form of cancer. He had already been battling prostate cancer and is still recovering from surgery in the spring to repair a hip fracture.

Layton vowed to be back on the job by the time Parliament resumes on Sept. 19 but party president Brian Topp said that's not a firm deadline and Layton can take all the time he needs to regain his health.

Until then, Topp said Layton's absence provides an opportunity to prove that the party's electoral success was more than a flash-in-the-pan based solely on the 61-year-old leader's folksy charm.

"These are terrible circumstances, no doubt about that ... But I think we've got the bench strength to step forward and handle it," Topp said.

"This team is going to show what it's got in the next two to three months. One of the things we're going to see is that it's got a strong and deep front bench, excellent MPs, including MPs who would form an excellent federal cabinet.

"When we're done, I think people who voted for the party will think, 'I voted for a great leader, yes, and I also voted for a great team.'"

Topp doubted any prospective leadership aspirant would be foolhardy enough to begin overtly jockeying to permanently replace Layton.

"Let's be clear. Jack Layton is the most successful leader the federal NDP has ever had and he just got a 98 per cent support vote in a federal convention. So I would be astonished if there were egregious or unhelpful moves by members of the team and I think anybody who did ... would probably regret it."

Layton has recommended that rookie Quebec MP Nycole Turmel, a longtime union leader, be named interim leader. The choice must be approved by both the parliamentary caucus and the party's federal council, which is to meet Thursday.

On his way into Wednesday's caucus meeting, Topp said no one thus far had objected to the choice of Turmel. Layton was to speak to his MPs by phone.

Topp said he spoke to Layton earlier Wednesday. "He was in great spirits, his voice was strong, he was in good humour.

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