Frank McKenna Pegged as Next Liberal Leader.

ASK A PROMINENT Liberal about who might be the party's next leader and the first response is a deep, exasperated sigh, combined with much eye-rolling and head-shaking.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 29, 2005

ASK A PROMINENT Liberal about who might be the party's next leader and the first response is a deep, exasperated sigh, combined with much eye-rolling and head-shaking.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 29, 2005

Frank McKenna Pegged as Next Liberal Leader.

ASK A PROMINENT Liberal about who might be the party's next leader and the first response is a deep, exasperated sigh, combined with much eye-rolling and head-shaking. After the long years of the Chrétien-Martin wars, can't we leave it alone? And, anyway, given Stephen HARPER's southbound polling numbers, isn't it the identity of the next Tory leader that should be the subject of speculation? But with those complaints out of the way - and with a firm understanding that this is all off the record, right? - leadership handicapping is a sport that's never out of season. Liberal MPs might not dare talk much about it during the workday when their caucus meets for a summer session in Regina this week, but it's bound to come up after hours. What's intriguing is that the same insiders who say there is no subterranean leadership race also agree there is a frontrunner - Frank MCKENNA, Canada's ambassador to the United States.

Yet McKenna has not attracted the most leadership attention in the media recently. Pundits and players have been hyperventilating over more novel potential candidates. First came a wave of chatter about the prospect of Michael Ignatieff, the media-star Harvard University professor, coming home to win over the party as a Pierre Trudeau-like philosopher king. Next, attention shifted to the arguably even stranger scenario of Bob RAE, the former NDP premier of Ontario, switching partisan stripes for a return to politics and a bid to become the next federal Liberal to take up residency at 24 Sussex Drive. But while Ignatieff and Rae each have their share of Grit fans, neither can match McKenna's mainstream credibility. "I'd be very surprised if he didn't have the edge," said one Martin loyalist who views McKenna as the man to beat.

McKenna represents a package that makes some political strategists go weak at the knees. Still boyish at 57, he is a decade younger than Paul MARTIN. As New Brunswick's pro-business premier from 1987 to 1997, he established a far higher national profile than most leaders of small provinces. His extensive network includes the likes of Liberal Party of Canada national director Steve MacKinnon, who was McKenna's executive assistant from 1988 to 1996. He has many well-placed boosters among Liberal MPs and senators. "I'm a Frank McKenna Liberal," declares New Brunswick MP Andy Savoy, the Liberal caucus chair. "I think he'd make a great, great prime minister." But Savoy, who acts as the main liaison between the current Prime Minister and his MPs, hastens to add, "I don't think Frank's actively pursuing it."

Of course not. For a serving ambassador to be caught engaging in anything that smacks of leadership jockeying would be a damaging embarrassment. McKenna is far too experienced a political operator to risk it. The beauty of his current post is the way it has allowed him to burnish his image while merely doing his job. Rarely has a Canadian diplomat commanded so much positive media attention. McKenna has been front-and-centre in taking on any American who suggests that Canada is soft on terror, firing back at everyone from New York Times editorial writers to CNN personalities. Each salvo gets another round of glowing press in Canada. He has also carried much of the load for Ottawa on contentious files, from mad cow disease to softwood lumber. It's a no-lose role; even if McKenna doesn't succeed, he'll score with the home crowd as a tenacious Canadian battling the Big Bad Americans.

In fact, McKenna is hardly a rank outsider in Washington. Before being appointed ambassador, he was on the Canadian advisory board of the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.-based investment firm with links to former U.S. president George H.W. Bush. When those ties became an issue after he was named Canada's representative in Washington early this year, McKenna downplayed them. "I have a relationship with a few members of the Bush family," he said. "But it is not a very tight, strong relationship." Still, any connection to the Bush clan is a calling card in today's Republican-dominated Washington. Add to that McKenna's track record, back in the late eighties, as a strong proponent of the Canada-U.S. free trade deal, and his business-friendly, budget-balancing policies as New Brunswick premier, and some left-of-centre Liberals might begin to get leery. "Clearly, he's on the right wing of the party," says York University political science professor Robert MacDermid.

But it is McKenna's personal appeal, not his ideological stance, that has many Liberals ranking him above potential leadership rivals. Rae is respected by the party's elite, who know him well; Martin trusts him enough to have appointed him to advise the government on whether or not there should be an inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing. But while McKenna's reputation from provincial politics is strong, Rae's is dubious. After winning the 1990 Ontario election, his popularity plummeted during tough economic times, and his NDP government was swept from power in 1995 by Mike Harris's Tories. And this summer's speculative stir about Rae turning federal Grit didn't translate into rank-and-file enthusiasm. "Bob has no resonance among Liberal barbecue-goers," said one party strategist.

Ignatieff comes with no political baggage - but also no experience. At 58, the Harvard human rights professor is Canada's most famous expatriate public intellectual, both as an author and a broadcaster. He delivered a widely noted speech to a Liberal policy convention in March, sparking speculation that he is pondering a return to Toronto, after spending most of his adult life in Britain and the U.S., to try to become an MP and then succeed Martin. Friends say he is spending this summer mulling his options in France. But the prevailing view is that, after decades abroad, he would face a steep uphill climb.

Some of those hankering for a thoughtful Liberal to back have mused about Social Development Minister Ken DRYDEN making a bid. He's a household name as a former hockey player, and respected by Martin's crew - but not exactly a scintillating public performer. "Character and comportment," said one veteran Liberal operative, making the case for Dryden, "are sometimes more important than dynamism."

A nice thought, but not entirely convincing. Overall, the arguments for Ignatieff, Rae and Dryden, along with other long shots, take a little too much imagination. But some of the more obvious hopefuls, notably Chrétien-era cabinet heavyweight John Manley, have been attracting scant notice lately. Only McKenna, at this early point, combines straightforward political experience with current buzz. Whether that can be sustained is another question. Martin promises an election early in 2006. If he loses, the race to replace him will begin immediately. If he wins, his U.S. ambassador will be able to spend a few more years in Washington, before coming home to start organizing for real. For now, in the race that nobody's running, McKenna looks comfortably ahead.

Maclean's August 29, 2005