by Steve Paikin Monday November 12, 2012

Just over a week ago, the Ontario Liberal Party leadership seemed like a prize nobody wanted. Day after day, potential contenders -- Chris Bentley, Laurel Broten, George Smitherman, Dwight Duncan, Brad Duguid, and Deb Matthews -- were tripping over themselves to get out of the race, not into it.

And this past weekend, former cabinet minister John Wilkinson, best known for so skillfully bringing in the HST, added his name to that list. That's a real shame for Liberals who would like to see the party have a rural candidate as an option. The Liberal Party has become box-office poison in rural Ontario. Wilkinson said sacrificing time with family was the chief reason for not running. But part of the calculation had to be the difficulty he'd no doubt have recapturing his Perth-Wellington seat, which he lost by slightly more than 200 votes in 2011. In any event, it means unless something unanticipated happens, nearly every candidate will be from the Greater Toronto Area, the exception being a woman who announced this past week that "she's back." 

But the cliché proved to be true: a week is a lifetime in politics. 

Just when it looked as if no one wanted to replace Dalton McGuinty as premier, a flood of solid candidates has jumped in, and still will jump into the race this week. 

Former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello proclaimed "I'm back" last week at Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone, joining Glen Murray and Kathleen Wynne in the race. Charles Sousa jumped in on Sunday. Eric Hoskins told me on Sunday he'll announce his entry into the race on Tuesday morning. Gerard Kennedy jumped in on Monday, November 12, but with no siss boom bah at all. He made the announcement on CP24 in an interview this morning.

Former cabinet minister Eric Hoskins, at yesterday's Remembrance Day ceremonies at Queen's Park. He'll enter the race on Tuesday, November 13.

Pupatello is an intriguing candidate. Full of brass and brawn (a characteristic that seems to be in almost every big-name politician from Windsor), Pupatello is trying to recast herself, from former attack dog during the Mike Harris years, to today's job-creation specialist. She makes the claim having been economic development minister, and having spent a little over a year on Bay Street working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

Pupatello impressively spoke without notes or a teleprompter, moving back and forth with decent facility in French and Italian as well, as she kicked off her campaign. Yes, she has the theatrics of the job down pat  -- good speaker, good performer, and some sharp edges to keep opponents uncomfortable. But Pupatello's biggest asset may be that she's been away from Queen's Park for the past year and change, theoretically giving her some distance from one of the government's most botched files, the cancellation of the Mississauga gas-fired power plant. 

Her opponents may remind her, however, that she was at the cabinet table when ORNGE, e-health, and the cancellation of the Oakville plant were discussed. 

Clearly, Pupatello is trying to distance herself somewhat from the current situation. She said her candidacy is based on creating more jobs, "something we don't hear nearly enough about at Queen's Park these days." 

In political parlance, that's called "throwing the premier under the bus." When I asked her after her news conference whether she really meant to sound that tough against the current government, she didn't walk the statement back one iota. 

Pupatello's husband Jim Bennett (left) is currently a member of the House of Assembly in Newfoundland & Labrador.

The only potential misstep Pupatello may have made at her launch was related to prorogation. The Liberals are taking a ton of hits on McGuinty's decision to pull the plug on the legislature. And Pupatello said she wouldn't call the house back until she had a seat. That means asking someone else to step down (probably Dwight Duncan in Windsor), getting a by-election called, and winning it. All the other candidates say they want the house back ASAP. But by Pupatello's scenario, ASAP looks like it could take longer. 

And while she claims she'll run again in the next election regardless of whether she wins the leadership, she told me after her news conference the reality is, that'll only happen if the new leader (presuming it's not her) wants her to run. In other words, if I win, I'm in. If I don't, I'm not. 

On Saturday, former citizenship and immigration minister Charles Sousa jumped in as well, and opened with a good joke. 

Seeing his 89-year-old father Antonio standing on stage beside Mississauga's 91-year-old mayor Hazel McCallion, Sousa suggested, "the only reason my dad is here is to hit on Mayor McCallion."

Antonio Sousa and Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion.

Despite the Portuguese community's long-standing ties to Canada, its members have not been huge political players. The first ever cabinet minister from that community was Carl DeFaria, another MPP from Mississauga who only lasted a year in Ernie Eves' government 10 years ago. Peter Fonseca was the first Liberal from the Portuguese community to be in cabinet, but again, just for a few years midway through McGuinty's reign. Sousa became the third in 2010 and he's only been a minister for less than two years. 

Sousa, formerly of Royal Bank, is positioning himself on the centre-right of the Liberal spectrum, talking up balanced budgets, economic development, and international investment, particularly the Ring of Fire. In other words, northern Ontario delegates, please have a look at me. 

In a scrum after his kick-off announcement, he handled questions about the Mississauga power plant with skill. I asked him what he'd say to critics who said he was tarnished by the more than $200 million taxpayers will have to fork over for canceling the plant in order to save his (and other) Peel Region seats. He was unapologetic. He got into politics, he said, to oppose that gas plant, he opposed it in caucus, he opposed it in cabinet, he opposed it during the campaign, and he was happy when the government killed it. Oh, and the opposition parties would have killed it too. So there. 

Mississauga politics can be deliciously complicated and Sousa's campaign offers some of that. Besides the mayor, former city councillor Carolyn Parrish was in attendance, lending her support. Parrish has led the efforts to have the mayor taken down over the conflict of interest scandal that mired McCallion's otherwise stellar reputation a year ago. McCallion and Parrish despise each other, and I'm told the mayor's support of Sousa is unlikely to stay enthusiastic if Parrish continues to be part of the campaign. 

Mississauga City Councillor Bonnie Crombie (centre)

In addition, former MP and current city councillor Bonnie Crombie was on stage supporting Sousa. Crombie is a possible mayoralty candidate once McCallion retires in 2014. And if Sousa doesn't win the Liberal leadership, he may well be a candidate too. So in supporting Sousa's leadership bid, Crombie may ironically be helping a future rival improve his profile. 

"How these three, the Mayor (and Parrish) and Crombie could all be in the same room and on the same leadership team is perplexing, and likely not sustainable," a source with solid knowledge of the situation told me. "In Mississauga politics, Charles will have to decide: is he with the Mayor or Carolyn."

Yes, Mississauga politics can get complicated. 

"Many in the room, many who may like Sousa, were fearful that he will not do well in the leadership race," this source continued, "that he will be the focus of opposition criticism on the power plant fiasco, is perceived too right wing to go against the strong NDP, hasn't been in, or made enough of a mark in cabinet, doesn't have cabinet or caucus support and therefore may come in far back of the leaders. They wondered aloud, why he was doing this. Why spend hundreds of thousands of supporters' dollars for what, if you risk coming in last: profile? A better cabinet post? A mayoralty run? Politics is certainly a strange game."

And yes, this Ontario Liberal leadership race just got a whole lot more interesting.