National Newswatch

OTTAWA — When he dropped out of the Conservative leadership race last week, Tony Clement happened to mention a recent opinion poll that had him running in second place behind rival Maxime Bernier.

Clement neglected to mention that particular survey's actual front-runners: "Someone Else" and "Don't Know."

Sure, it's early, and polls often leave a lot to be desired. But the collective shrug expressed in that Forum Research survey nicely encapsulates the challenge both the Conservatives and the NDP are facing one year after their respective election defeats.

As much as the 2015 election was a resounding political comeback for the Liberals, it was a bitter pill for the governing Conservatives and a body blow for the New Democrats.

The latter party went from being poised to form the first-ever federal NDP government to a crushing third-place finish, losing 50 seats in the process — including a number of high-profile MPs who were washed away by public appetite for change.

The Tories, gambling on one of the longest campaign windows in modern political history, found themselves undone by a Liberal leader who surpassed low expectations and the ever-present Senate expenses scandal, which generated headlines all through the campaign.

Since then, neither party's leadership race has generated enough heat to challenge the attention afforded ever-popular Justin Trudeau's Liberals, who have enjoyed an extended honeymoon of sorts despite the best efforts of their rivals.

That said, Tories and New Democrats alike say cracks are starting to appear in the Liberal armour, and their leadership issues will be resolved in time. But there remain significant hurdles to clear in order for either party to contend in 2019 — or even 2023.

CONSERVATIVES

Though the divisive legacy of Stephen Harper looms large, Conservatives insist they aren't as badly off as people might think. The party continues to outstrip the Liberals in fundraising, they point out, and their core message of lower taxes and fiscal responsibility still resonates with many voters.

They also cite strong performances by interim leader Rona Ambrose and members of her shadow cabinet in the House of Commons.

"There is a strong basis (for growth)," said Clement, who served in the Health and Industry portfolios under Harper. "It's not only veterans but newcomers in caucus. There's a good cross-section of men and women."

Party insiders say they will keep up the pressure on what they consider the government's vulnerabilities: economic growth, foreign policy and the ever-present spectre of Liberal entitlement, embodied in such controversies as Health Minister Jane Philpott's luxury car service and the moving expenses incurred — and partially reimbursed — by senior Liberal staffers.

The hope is to give the new leader some ammunition for when he or she arrives next May. 

Who that will be remains an open question, especially now that former cabinet heavyweights Jason Kenney, Peter MacKay and Clement have opted out. The current field comprises only lesser-known MPs, such as Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Brad Trost, Kellie Leitch and Erin O'Toole.

"The dynamic changed when neither of the two favourites entered, Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney," said Conservative strategist and Summa Strategies vice-president Tim Powers.

"That doesn't mean this current crop can't have some real stars emerge and earn their stripes. But it's hard to see the stars there."

What little attention the race has attracted revolved mostly around Leitch's call to screen immigrants for "anti-Canadian values," prompting comparisons to Donald Trump's U.S. election campaign — to say nothing of fears that protectionist, nationalist sentiments are alive and well in Canada.

"Who the hell knows what's going to happen with this leadership race," says Powers.

"But a couple of things that Conservatives are calculating (are), 'Can we win now,' and 'If we can win now, who do we vote for?' Or do we look at the longer game and, understanding from political history that Trudeau will quite likely get a second mandate, do we give somebody the opportunity to build to 2023?"

The New Democrats

Make no mistake: it's been a tough 12 months for the NDP. Fundraising has all but dried up. Popular support has collapsed. And with the centrist Liberals in power, the party is still trying to figure out where to anchor itself on the political spectrum.

New Democrats say many of those issues will be cleared up once a new leader is finally chosen to replace the departing Tom Mulcair. The question is, who will it be?

Six months in, no one has come forward to run for what former NDP strategist and MediaStyle creative director Ian Capstick calls "the worst job in Canadian politics."

Candidates are expected to start coming forward in the next few weeks. And many in the party like Capstick believe the delay — a new leader will be chosen in October 2017 — provides more time for the bloom to fall off the Liberal rose.

There is also a sense that after painting themselves as progressives, the Liberals are starting to show their true colours — sticking with Stephen Harper's climate change targets and taking a hard line on health-care funding are two examples.

"Those two issues are very dear to New Democrats' hearts," says Brad Lavigne, former NDP national director and founder of Forward Public Affairs.

"The Liberals have given us a tremendous opening here to illustrate that the things they say during election time are not always the way that they govern once they get into power."

That said, it's hard to hide the lack of excitement surrounding the party. Officials admit there has even been pushback from traditional supporters uneasy about the NDP's attacks on the Liberal government.

Behind it all is a tacit acknowledgment that no matter who becomes leader, the party will have to go back to basics — and hopefully rekindle some of the magic that surrounded Mulcair's predecessor in the weeks before the party's 2011 election breakthrough.

"This is not a job for somebody who believes that they are walking into 24 Sussex," says Capstick.

"This is a job for a builder.… Our leader needs to be a lot more like Jack Layton than Tom Mulcair."

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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