OTTAWA - Former prime minister Paul Martin predicts the humbled federal Liberal party will re-emerge as a force to contend with by the time of the next election in just three years.
Many Liberals, including some contenders for the party's leadership, believe it will take at least two elections to dig themselves out of the electoral hole to which they were consigned in 2011, when they were reduced to a third-party rump with just 34 seats.
But Martin is more optimistic, predicting a much faster turn-around.
"I think the Liberal party is going to be in very, very good shape come the next election," Martin said Monday night outside a Liberal tribute to senior party statesman and former cabinet minister Herb Gray.
"The fact of the matter is we've got both the (Conservative) government and the (NDP) Opposition (that) are at the polar extremes of the right and the left. That's not where Canadians are.
"Canadians understand that government has to play a positive role and that it has to be fiscally responsible and they've left the door wide open for the Liberals and that's exactly where the Liberals feel most comfortable."
That applies equally in Quebec, where voters flocked to the NDP in 2011, Martin added.
"I think Quebecers have indicated that they're capable of turning on a dime ... Quebecers are not extremists."
Martin said the current leadership race is "creating a lot of momentum" and interest in the party.
The tribute for Gray, who served almost 40 years as an MP for Windsor until his retirement in 2002, was as much a showcase for those seeking to lead the party in future as it was a celebration of one of the key players from the party's glorious past.
Most of the declared contenders, and a number of soon-to-be candidates, used the occasion to circulate among the several hundred Liberal movers and shakers who attended the tribute.
Montreal MP Justin Trudeau, eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and the presumptive front-runner, was surrounded by Liberals seeking to shake his hand or have their pictures taken with him, while his rivals generally chatted with one or two Liberals at a time.
The most serious challenger to Justin Trudeau so far is Martha Hall Findlay, a former Toronto MP who ran last in the 2006 leadership contest. She officially took the plunge last week and was pressing the flesh at the Gray tribute Monday.
Long shot contenders David Bertschi, an Ottawa lawyer, and retired Canadian Forces Lt.-Col. Karen McCrimmon were also in attendance, as were several other putative dark horse candidates who intend to take the plunge soon despite Trudeau's head start and evident popularity.
"There's going to be some unconventional candidates. I'm one of them," said Toronto lawyer George Takach, who intends to formally launch his campaign on Nov. 29 with a focus on technology and the economy.
"I'm delighted that Justin's in it, don't get me wrong. He's going to bring all sorts of energy and new people into the party. But so will I."
Vancouver MP Joyce Murray, who intends to pitch her experience as a former British Columbia cabinet minister and small businesswoman when she launches her campaign early next week, said she "completely disagrees" with those who think Trudeau has already sewn up the race.
"I've worked with Justin and it's great that he's in the race. I'm so happy at the attention that it's attracting," she said.
"At the same time, people will ... also be looking, not just for a buzz because a buzz is temporary, they'll be looking for who can really lead the kind of transformation that we need in our party."
Montreal MP Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, was also in attendance but would not tip his hand as to when he expects to announce whether he's going to join the race.
"The homework is continuing apace. It won't be too long," he said.
Earlier Monday, Ottawa MP David McGuinty announced that he — like his brother, retiring Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — has decided to take a pass.
David McGuinty told The Canadian Press he's concluded he can best serve the party in other ways.
"I've reflected long and hard on what is the best way for me to help rebuild the party, what is the best way for me to help hold down the fort, do what I call a lot of the ground work, a lot of the nuts and bolts work," he said in an interview.
"And I think I am best placed at this time to do what I'm doing, which is to really build the party from the ground up, riding by riding, issue by issue, in the committees, on the floor of the House of Commons.
"I just think there's so much heavy lifting to be done that, from my perspective, this is for me the best way to serve."
McGuinty said his decision has nothing to do with the widespread perception that Trudeau has already locked up the contest, which only officially began last week and culminates April 14.
"I don't place a lot of stock in prohibitive favourites," he said, pointing out that his brother Dalton vaulted from fourth place to win the Ontario Liberal leadership in 1996.
The premier announced last month that he will retire as soon as a successor is chosen in January. Under pressure from a well-organized draft campaign, he briefly toyed with the notion of running for the federal leadership but eventually ruled that out.
In addition to the McGuinty brothers, a number of other prospective heavyweight contenders have chosen to sit out the contest, including Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, former deputy prime minister John Manley, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc and Halifax MP Geoff Regan.
Among the others who've declared their candidacies are Toronto lawyer and policy consultant Deborah Coyne, mother of Trudeau's half sister, Vancouver prosecutor Alex Burton, and David Merner, former president of the party's British Columbia wing.
However, Trudeau is the only candidate so far to officially register with the party, which includes paying the first $25,000 instalment of a $75,000 entry fee.