Credits: ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY
TORONTO — The winner in the Ontario Liberal leadership race gets the premier's office and a portrait which will hang forever in the halls of Queen's Park.
The new premier also inherits a government mired by scandal, sinking in the polls and stung by the angry reaction to retiring Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's unexpected decision to prorogue the house and shut down the legislature.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor with the University of Toronto, said replacing a leader can in the short-term re-energize a party but it can also torpedo the new premier's chances of election.
"That can help change your image in a positive direction," Wiseman said. "On the other hand, you can still be loaded down with the baggage and sins of your predecessor."
The Liberals say they're confident they can stage a leadership contest without shredding the party from within.
"There will be no acrimony at the end of this," the party's election chairman Greg Sorbara said.
McGuinty has ordered prospective candidates within the cabinet to step down before they enter the race -- an edict that would have left him flanked by raw rookies on the front bench in question period every day if he had not prorogued the house.
Likely cabinet candidates have accepted the unusual condition, which strips them of a high-profile platform as well as salary and a driver, while also leveling the playing field for those outside cabinet.
Former minister Sandra Pupatello -- not surprisingly -- dubbed McGuinty's cabinet ban "a stroke of genius."
Jockeying for McGuinty's job has generally not gone on openly under his nose, and every indication suggests he hasn't allowed it.
Former McGuinty cabinet ministers Michael Bryant and George Smitherman were the noisiest but both left office to pursue their ambitions.
There are rumours that Chris Bentley and Kathleen Wynne have quietly put together leadership teams but any work in that area has been done with great discretion.
Few in the cabinet have ruled out running so far, with Dwight Duncan, Deb Matthews, Laurel Broten, Brad Duguid, Charles Sousa, Michael Gravelle and Eric Hoskins all possible challengers with Wynne and Bentley. Outside cabinet, Pupatello, Smitherman and former education minister Gerard Kennedy may jump in as well.
Former premier Mike Harris allowed his cabinet ministers to audition for his job, arguing he wanted people around him with ambition.
The internal arm-wrestling became so fierce, though, that in August 2001 the then-premier was forced to warn the over-eager leadership hopefuls that there would be two more cabinet shuffles and that they could be demoted if they didn't cut it out.
The Sun Media story that at the time put the wrangling out in the open, quoted sources saying that the premier would hold them responsible for their own actions and anything done by their supporters.
"The boss said he will not tolerate one minister working against another minister," the source said.
Although Harris didn't name names, his message was believed aimed mainly at Health Minister Tony Clement and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the two most obvious front-runners to replace him.
Despite the warnings, the ensuing leadership campaign was brutal.
Frontrunner Ernie Eves was labelled a "pale pink imitation of Dalton McGuinty" by competitor Jim Flaherty, who along with supporter John Baird served up pink waffles to make his point.
Eves went on to gain the leadership but the waffle label stuck like a tattoo and any indecisiveness was pounced on quickly by his opposition.
After Eves flamed out against McGuinty in the 2003 election, the PCs turned to John Tory. Liberals wasted no time in working to define him for voters -- putting operatives right in the convention room, handing out "Richie Rich" buttons and faux silver spoons to reporters to suggest Tory's wealth left him out of touch with average voters.
The opposition parties will similarly seek to define the new Liberal premier quickly. PC Leader Tim Hudak is already reminding reporters that most of the contenders were at the cabinet table when the costly and controversial decisions were made to unplug powers plants in Oakville and Mississauga -- and should share the responsibility for the mishandled release of documents relating to the decision.
"The house was clearly misled by (Energy) Minister Bentley, by premier McGuinty and a number of cabinet ministers from Dwight Duncan to John Milloy to Glen Murray and others who may be considering a Liberal leadership run," Hudak said last week.
Wiseman said it will be more of an asset for a leadership candidate to be outside cabinet so that he or she can distance themselves from some of the more unpopular decisions made by the McGuinty government.
As a premier who will never recall the legislature again, McGuinty will have little control over the leadership candidates themselves, he predicted.
And yet his legacy will be in the hands of his successor: if that person loses like Eves did when he sought his first election as leader then McGuinty's career could well be defined by a Tory or NDP premier.
It happened to Harris.
Dwight Duncan -- taking a shot at his Tory rivals last week -- suggested the Liberals would be able to make a smooth transition from one premier to the next, as Bill Davis did after John Robarts -- unlike the messy Harris to Eves hand-off.