The decision made by some 5,000 delegates at the Liberal leader- ship convention in December will be determined by the level of risk they are willing to assume with their pre- ferred candidate. And make no mistake, whether it is a policy, regional appeal, experience or government record issue, each of the four leading candidates car- ries significant political risk for a party historically loath to take them. And the stakes have increased lately.

That’s how quickly a few perceived missteps by the new government of Stephen Harper have elevated the importance of this race. A party that less than a year ago was defeated, divid- ed and devoid of fresh ideas can now dream of electoral success " providing it bets on a winning horse.

While none of the candidates rep- resent a Trudeauvian mix of charisma and public popularity, several nonetheless have demonstrated an abil- ity to articulate clear policy positions on a variety of complex issues. While many still prefer the maddening mushy mid- dle of Liberalism, some candidates have staked out highly controversial and con- trasting views, particularly on Quebec and Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Four candidates have emerged with enough support to be considered potential winners. They are:

Stéphane Dion " No one doubts Dion’s campaign ability or durability " he has the energy and determined smarts. Dion has had success on both an old Liberal issue, unity, and an emerging one, the environment. But while he may be Captain Canada, he has proven to have only moderate sup- port outside Quebec, and raises the question of whether the country will tolerate another captain from Quebec.

Michael Ignatieff " old-guard Liberals supporting Ignatieff are taking a calculated risk that a confident, energetic new brand of Liberalism is what is need- ed to lead the party back to the political promised land. However, divisive, if principled, positions on Afghanistan and Quebec along with some glaring examples of political inexperience dur- ing the campaign have elevated rhe risk factor and made the possibility of an Anybody-but-Ignatieff play that much more likely.

Gerard Kennedy " A tantalizing choice for delegates looking for youth and a centre-left pedigree, but Kennedy has yet to hit his platform stride or make a breakthrough in Quebec and could be hurt by a perception that he is the can- didate for ”œnext time.” Ironically, the same style of brokered convention that defeated Kennedy in the 1996 Ontario Liberal leadership race may work to his advantage this time, as his smoothly run campaign could result in him squeaking through as the compromise choice in Montreal.

Bob Rae " Rae has demonstrated his main strength of campaign experience, which could be a real asset if the Liberals are thrown into a snap election. He will give the best speech at the convention and perhaps fear of his baggage (which kept his Ontario delegate count low) will evaporate. Still, there is palpable confu- sion, if not downright anger, among many Ontario Liberals that a guy who they campaigned against in three provincial elections may soon be award- ed the party’s ultimate prize.

After assessing the merits of each of the remaining candidates, what the decision by the delegates on the conven- tion floor will really come down to is likeability and ability to win, as well as who appears to be the party-uniter.

The likeability factor reflects the reality of a brokered convention where disgruntled delegates supporting can- didates who drop off early will be look- ing to the leadership candidate who has done the least to alienate them when casting their subsequent ballots. Ability to win speaks to the one Liberal policy all delegates hold most dear " winning again and decisively this time. Delegates will be imagining the front-run- ners taking on Harper in debates, facing the grinding weeks in which every word and nuance is picked apart by their oppo- nent and being eviscerated by an Ottawa gallery who really have not yet had a go at the leadership candidates.

The other factor lurking in the background of a long day and night of horse- trading will be party unity. The ill-timed tomes of Eddie Goldenberg and Alfonso Gagliano have revived the bitter Chrétien-Martin feud that so damaged the Liberal brand. Fortunately for the party, for the first time in decades the Trudeau/Chrétien vs. Turner/Martin bat- tle appears to have no natural successor.

Finally, Liberals with a sense of his- tory may be wary of breaking two impor- tant traditions the party has followed since choosing Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The first tradition is well known: the Liberals have always alternated between fran- cophone and anglophone leaders. The second is less well known " Liberals have never chosen a leader without fed- eral cabinet experience. Only one of the four front-running candidates fits either of those requirements and he in fact fits both " Stéphane Dion.

So these are the key considerations for delegates in our view. Watch them play out in Montreal. Watch them shape what candidates say in the con- test of their lives. See if delegates will hold their breath and what level of risk they will tolerate.