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Mixed reaction to idea of McGuinty bid for federal Liberal leadership

OTTAWA – The notion that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty might dive into the federal Liberal leadership contest got a mixed reception from his fellow Grits Tuesday — from excitement to disbelief to thinly veiled hostility.

McGuinty set Liberal tongues wagging Monday with his surprise resignation as premier and subsequent refusal to categorically rule out a federal leadership bid.

Key members of his inner circle, who have been working on a campaign to draft McGuinty into the federal race for the past month, were buoyed Tuesday by offers of support from Liberals across the country.

“It’s been a steady inflow of interest,” said Chris Morley, the premier’s former chief of staff.

“There’ve been many people from across the country, touching base, suggesting they would support a McGuinty candidacy.”

Morley said the response suggests “it would be obvious that, if the premier chose to seek the federal leadership, everything would be in place for a well-funded and well-organized campaign.”

Excitement about a possible McGuinty candidacy is being fuelled largely by concern among many Liberals that the leadership contest is currently shaping up to be little more than a coronation for Montreal MP Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

For his part, Trudeau welcomed the prospect of a heavyweight rival.

“Dalton McGuinty is someone who has a deep, deep perspective on service,” Trudeau said in Halifax, where he took questions from high school students.

“He’s served his province and his country well … As for whether or not he’ll choose to run for another political position, that’s entirely up to him but I’m welcoming the idea and the knowledge that we are going to have a strong and robust leadership race.”

Privately, however, Trudeau supporters doubt McGuinty has any intention of entering the federal race. They suspect the speculation is being fanned deliberately to deflect attention from a gas plant scandal that chased McGuinty out the premier’s door.

On Parliament Hill, Liberal MPs seemed lukewarm about the prospect of a McGuinty leadership bid, with most doubting he has any interest in making the jump to federal politics and others suggesting he’s accumulated too much baggage as premier.

“I’m not saying I would support him, but I’m just saying I think we need strong people in the race and I think he’d be a strong person,” said Toronto-area MP John McCallum, one of the more enthusiastic MPs.

“I think it would be good for the Liberal party to have him in the race.”

While McGuinty would bring experience to the race, McCallum suggested he could be plagued by the same problem as interim leader Bob Rae, whose ambition to become permanent leader was thwarted — at least in part — by memories of his recession-ravaged stint as NDP premier of Ontario.

“I think he’s a little bit like Bob Rae in the sense that, through no fault of his own, he was hit with a really weak economy…. So they both get some blame for a weak economy, which was not their creation, but that’s the luck of the draw.”

Rae praised McGuinty’s record as premier but declined to speculate on whether he should run for the federal leadership or whether he’s tainted by the scandals that have plagued the Ontario government of late.

“I’ve certainly heard comments addressed to me about baggage but I wish the premier well. I mean, whatever he decides to do, it’s entirely, entirely up to him,” said Rae.

Others noted that McGuinty has promised to remain a member of the Ontario legislature until the next provincial election, taking that as evidence he won’t join the federal fray.

“I think it’s just pure speculation,” said Prince Edward Island MP Wayne Easter.

“I think he would be a very serious contender if he were to (jump in), but I didn’t see any indication from him last night that that was part of the cards,” said Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison.

Roger Cuzner, MP for Cape Breton, declined comment.

“I wouldn’t want to weigh in on that. I don’t know him very well, anyway.”

Off the Hill, there seemed to be more enthusiasm.

“I think it would be a good thing for the party and a good thing for the country to have a competitive race, for sure,” said David Brodie, one-time western adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin.

“I think Justin running has been a great thing for the party to date but he is still largely untested and I think it would be much better, not just for him but for the party as a whole, to have a strong, competitive race.”

John Mraz, a veteran Liberal organizer at both the federal and provincial level, said a McGuinty candidacy would be “terrific.”

“I’m not sure we have a contest right now, that Justin is being contested right now by anyone with Dalton McGuinty’s gravitas, experience and political wherewithal…. We certainly haven’t seen anyone with Dalton McGuinty’s pedigree.”