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NDP brass to lay ground rules in race to replace Jack Layton

It cost New Democrats less to run for their party’s leadership last time around than it does to get a seat at the World Series of Poker.

This time, the stakes — and entry fee — are likely to be much higher.

To the victor goes the title of Opposition leader and, perhaps, a better shot than any New Democrat has ever had at becoming prime minister.

That’s quite a change from the last go-round.

“In 2003, it wasn’t a prize,” said McMaster University political science professor Peter Graefe.

“This time, the prize is leader of the Opposition with a capacity, maybe, of becoming prime minister in four years.”

With this in mind and still mourning the death of leader Jack Layton, party brass meet Friday in Ottawa to set ground rules for the race.

The party’s federal council will pick a date and location for a leadership convention, set a spending limit and decide whether to set aside a certain portion of the vote for labour unions.

These issues will determine who runs for leader — and who sits this one out.

One of the biggest issues is the entry fee.

It cost just $7,500 to run for NDP leader in 2003. By comparison, the entry fee for the 2004 Conservative leadership contest was $100,000, while would-be Liberal leaders paid $50,000 for a shot in 2006.

Even contestants in the World Series of Poker have to pay more than the last batch of NDP leadership hopefuls did — $10,000 for the gamblers — to play in the main event in Las Vegas.

Many New Democrats would like to see a steeper fee to weed out people who don’t have a real chance of winning.

“That is going to be the first indication about how serious the New Democrats are at constricting this field, making sure that we don’t have countless also-rans who are up to their eyeballs in debt after this campaign is over,” said Ian Capstick, a media consultant and former press secretary to Layton.

Indeed, several Liberal leadership contenders are still paying off thousands of dollars in debts five years after the party chose Stephane Dion as leader.

On the other hand, the group Democracy Watch is urging the New Democrats to waive the fee to run, disclose all leadership campaign donations and set a “reasonable” spending limit.

Last time, the cap was $500,000. This time, there’s likely to be a spending limit more in line with the $3-million cap in the last Liberal leadership race.

Who could raise that kind of money is another question.

Speculation on Parliament Hill seems to be coalescing around five main contenders for the NDP job. They are party president and Layton confidant Brian Topp; deputy leader and Quebec lieutenant Thomas Mulcair; British Columbia MP Peter Julian; Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar.

More than ever before, bilingualism will be a job requirement, not just a nice-to-have bonus.

Quebecers sent 59 New Democrat MPs to Ottawa in the spring election and the party will need to solidify and build on those gains if it is to have any hope of unseating the governing Conservatives next time.

Topp, Mulcair and Julian are fully bilingual. Dewar and Angus are trying to improve their French.

Other names being floated for leader include MPs Robert Chisholm, Nathan Cullen, Romeo Saganash, Megan Leslie and Peggy Nash.

The prevailing sense is that it will be a seven-month contest to replace Layton, who died of cancer last month. The smart money is on Ottawa or Toronto to host the convention. Somewhere in Quebec is another likelihood.

The federal council must also decide if labour unions get a set portion of the votes.

The NDP set aside a quarter of the ballots for organized labour at its last convention. But there’s no longer anything in the party’s since-updated constitution that guarantees unions a percentage of the vote.

Interim leader Nycole Turmel threw cold water on the idea of setting aside a part of the vote for the unions.

“It is not on the table for the simple reason that the constitution is clear: it’s one member, one vote,” Turmel said Thursday.