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NDP president Brian Topp launches bid to replace Layton as party leader

OTTAWA - Brian Topp burst out of the blocks in the NDP leadership race Monday, taking an early head start powered by some muscular endorsements.

The Montreal-born party president became the first official candidate in the race to succeed the late Jack Layton, who died of cancer last month.

He was accompanied by party icon Ed Broadbent, the most popular and successful federal NDP leader — until Layton.

And he was endorsed by Francoise Boivin, an MP from Quebec — the home turf of Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, who is likely to be Topp's most serious leadership rival.

"No one can replace Jack," Topp declared at a news conference.

"But we can honour him by making sure his dream of social justice will never die. We can carry on his work. That's my pledge today." Full Color Discover Series

The fluently bilingual 51-year-old has deep roots in the party and its affiliated labour movement, having spent three decades working in party backrooms in Quebec, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario. He was national campaign director in 2006 and 2008 and a key architect of Layton's electoral breakthrough last May, when the NDP vaulted into official Opposition status with a record 103 seats.

But Topp has never run for public office and he acknowledged Monday having "butterflies" in his stomach about finally taking the plunge now. Still, he insisted he's up to the job of official Opposition leader and would be a serious contender for the prime minister's job by the next election in four years.

"Every now and then, somebody named Brian from Quebec comes in and gives it a try," he joked, referring to former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Topp suggested his backroom experience has prepared him for leadership more than sitting on the opposition benches would have done. Having served as deputy chief of staff to former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, he argued he knows "something about running an NDP government."

"We are one beautiful step away from being elected as the government of Canada and we must do an excellent job after we're elected. And I guess that's something that I bring to this race, which is I've been in the middle of a successful, well-run, effective principled, NDP government, which is what I think we can do federally."

Broadbent pointed out that he endorsed Layton in the 2003 leadership race, even though Layton had no parliamentary experience at the time.

"(Layton) exceeded even our wildest expectations. Now we need another builder, one who will take us from leader of the official Opposition to the Prime Minister's Office," Broadbent said.

"While there will be a number of good candidates — and I believe there will be — there is no one who stands clearly above all the others in the qualities that matter most.

"Brian Topp is that person. He has the political and intellectual substance we need to meet today's challenge. He has the qualities Canadians need in a prime minister. He is ready now."

The NDP's surge last May was powered primarily by Quebec, where the party scooped up 59 of 75 seats. Mulcair has taken credit for much of that breakthrough, which the party must now consolidate if it hopes to win power.

Boivin pointed out the party must also make gains elsewhere and said Topp represents "the best of both worlds" — someone who, like Layton, knows and understands Quebec and the rest of the country.

"Tom and I don't necessarily have that experience outside Quebec," said Boivin, who briefly considered making a leadership bid of her own.

Topp was a valued member of Layton's tight-knit inner circle, one of a handful who helped Layton craft a dying statement to Canadians. That has given rise to speculation that Layton himself wanted Topp to succeed him.

Topp refused to divulge his private conversations with the late leader. But he said no one can claim to be Layton's choice.

"We are all Jack's people. Everybody who's going to be running in this race is Jack Layton's friend. He recruited and worked with all of us and nobody gets to claim Jack Layton's mantle."

A recent Harris-Decima poll, conducted for The Canadian Press, found Canadians knew little about any of the prospective candidates for the NDP leadership, with Topp among the least known.

Topp committed to run for the party, whether or not he wins the leadership, although he hedged as to whether he'd contest a byelection in Layton's now-vacant seat of Toronto-Danforth.

All the other potential candidates already have seats. Among those still considering a leadership bid are Mulcair, Toronto MP Peggy Nash, B.C. MPs Peter Julian, Libby Davies and Nathan Cullen, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, Quebec MP Romeo Saganash and Nova Scotia MPs Megan Leslie and Robert Chisholm.

The caucus is to meet starting Tuesday evening in Quebec City to plot strategy for Monday's resumption of Parliament. However, much of the retreat will likely revolve around how to manage a leadership contest and remain a powerful force in the House of Commons at the same time.

Among the questions that must be resolved is whether leadership candidates must give up their shadow cabinet posts. Depending on who actually runs, the party could wind up with many of its most important critics — House leader, finance, foreign affairs, industry, to name a few — on the campaign trail rather than focusing on their parliamentary duties.

"I think that's the kind of healthy discussion we'll have at caucus," Julian, the industry critic, said in an interview.

Nash, the finance critic, said she's waiting to see what interim leader Nycole Turmel decides, acknowledging that it's "a legitimate concern."

Despite Topp's quick start, both Julian and Nash said they'll take their time before deciding whether to run.

"It's not a sprint," observed Nash of the race, which will culminate in a leadership vote on March 24.

Nash said she believes strong female contenders need to be in the contest, noting that New Democrats have been "pioneers in working to elect women in leadership positions" and that women account for 40 per cent of the current NDP caucus.

Both Julian and Nash acknowledged that Topp got off to a strong start, particularly in winning Broadbent's coveted endorsement.

"There's no doubt that Ed Broadbent will have influence but it's up to the membership to decide to what degree," said Julian, arguing that party members will be influenced by a host of factors, not simply endorsements.

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