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NDP leadership gets crowded as Dewar enters race to replace Jack Layton

Paul Dewar shunned flashy endorsements from party heavyweights as he launched Sunday a grassroots bid to lead the federal New Democrats.

Touting himself as a champion of the party’s rank and file, the Ottawa MP surrounded himself with several hundred enthusiastic supporters to celebrate his campaign kick-off.

“Our New Democratic Party starts with the grassroots — pretty evident here today, I would suggest,” Dewar told the cheering crowd crammed into a tiny room.

“For me and thousands like you, working hard, growing our party are the bedrock for electoral success.”

Dewar’s approach was in stark contrast to that of party president Brian Topp, the perceived frontrunner in the early stages of the race, which culminates with a leadership vote on Mar. 24.

Topp, the first out of the leadership gate, held a formal news conference to launch his bid last month, accompanied by former leader Ed Broadbent and Quebec MP Francoise Boivin. He’s since racked up an impressive list of endorsements from party luminaries, including former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and deputy leader Libby Davies.

Just hours before Dewar’s launch, Topp issued a statement highlighting his support among Canada’s entertainment industry, including actors Wendy Crewson and Gordon Pinsent and film director Patricia Rozema. Actor Shirley Douglas — daughter of socialist trailblazer and first federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas — also endorsed Topp, who is head of the radio and television performers’ union in Toronto.

Dewar had no similar high-profile supporters on hand, although he told reporters to “stay tuned” for endorsements in the days ahead.

“That’s not my focus,” he said following his campaign launch.

“My focus will be on connecting with people right across this country … For me, it’s about engaging with people who are presently members of the party and people who aren’t. My strength, if you will, is grassroots and that’s why I got involved in politics.”

With the party hoping to build on last May’s historic electoral breakthrough in Quebec, Dewar frankly acknowledged his laboured French is a handicap.

“French is very important to me and I’m working on it every day. It’s a challenge but I will overcome this challenge and take on Stephen Harper in both official languages,” he vowed.

Dewar is the fifth candidate to join the contest to choose a successor to Jack Layton, who died of cancer in August.

In addition to Topp, Quebec MP Romeo Saganash and British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen also formally declared their candidacies last month. Earlier Sunday, a little known Nova Scotia pharmacist, Martin Singh, also declared his intention to run for the leadership.

The race is likely to get very crowded over the next few weeks as those who are still weighing their chances decide whether to take the plunge.

Peter Julian, another B.C. MP, is expected to announce his decision later this week. Others still mulling it over include Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, Halifax MP Robert Chisholm, Toronto MP Peggy Nash and Churchill MP Niki Ashton.

The 48-year-old Dewar has deep roots in the party. His mother was the late Marion Dewar, who served as mayor of Ottawa, an MP and NDP party president. He worked as a aid worker in Central America, a public school teacher and union executive before winning election in 2006.

As the party’s foreign affairs critic, he’s earned a reputation as a thoughtful and well-informed MP.

His organizers are hoping to position Dewar as a “unifying alternative” who can come up the middle between the two polarizing frontrunners, Topp and Mulcair.