By Joan Bryden

MONTREAL (CP) - It seemed a harmless gesture to reward the lowliest candidate for a gallant campaign.

It may have changed the course of the Liberal leadership race, handing the crown to Stephane Dion.

Of all the sweaty palmed shakedowns, the not-so-secret pacts and the unseemly convention floor shoving matches, a whimsical decision late Friday by a half dozen or so of Gerard Kennedy's ex-officio delegates to throw their support to last-place contender Martha Hall Findlay on the first ballot turned out to be pivotal.

They felt confident Kennedy could spare a few votes and hoped they might be able to boost the lone female contender ahead of seventh-place Joe Volpe.

But those few votes made all the difference. Kennedy wound up slipping into fourth, just two votes behind Dion. The psychological impact of those paltry two votes on the 5,000 delegates turned out to be huge.

Dion was suddenly the guy with momentum, however slight, and Kennedy's campaign effectively stalled.

"You wonder how the momentum changes if Gerard had been in third rather than fourth place today," one Kennedy strategist mused shortly after Kennedy pulled out.

Liberal war-roomers had long predicted that the race for third would turn out to be the pivotal factor in the contest. If Kennedy had been in third once the four second-tier candidates dropped out, Dion would have been next off the ballot. He would never have gotten the chance to capitalize on his status as the most popular second choice for delegates in rival camps.

In that scenario, Kennedy likely would have ended up playing the kingmaker in a head-to-head battle between Ignatieff and Rae.

As it turned out, Dion edged past Kennedy on the first ballot and never looked back.

In a particularly cruel twist for Kennedy, Hall Findlay analysed the first-ballot results and determined that Dion's move up to third made him the contender with the most momentum. She called Dion from her hotel room early Saturday and offered him her support.

The two walked arm-in-arm into the convention hall, giving Dion yet another psychological boost just before delegates began lining up to cast their second ballots.

Kennedy strategists weren't the only ones left to contemplate all the what-ifs.

At a minimum, Ignatieff and Rae strategists had been counting on Kennedy to hang in at least until after the third ballot. His surprising decision to abandon the race immediately after the second vote and throw in his lot with Dion left their plans in tatters.

Had Kennedy lingered for one more ballot, the two front-running camps might have had time to strike a deal to stop Dion. By the time they realized what was happening, it was too late.

The Ignatieff and Rae camps had always had trouble believing that Kennedy and Dion would strike a pact, in which the first off the ballot would throw his support to the other. Their blindness to this was bizarre.

Despite weeks of hype about Kennedy-Dion tete-a-tetes, they couldn't imagine how the lone Quebec contender could risk a deal that might require him to back a candidate whose French is flawed, who had no support in his home province and who had come out flatly against recognition of Quebec as a nation.
Indeed, the optics were sufficiently bad that even after Kennedy crossed the floor to Dion, Dion organizers continued to insist there had never been any deal.
But Kennedy advisers revealed that an agreement was effectively struck late Friday. Nothing was put in writing but there was finally a meeting of the minds and a sense that each genuinely thought the other would make the second-best choice for leader.
Their alliance was so securely sealed that Dion and Kennedy signed off on a jointly drafted opinion piece on Friday that was to be published Saturday.
The article was never published because it might have fuelled the perception of a backroom plot. Moreover, Kennedy was still competing with Dion for third place at that point and felt a joint article would send "very mixed messages" to his delegates.
For all the mutual understanding between the two contenders, insiders say there was never any agreement about the timing of Kennedy's move to Dion. He surprised even some Dion organizers when he threw in the towel after only the second ballot.
Once he realized his support had essentially stalled, Kennedy consulted in his box with his caucus supporters, a handful of key aides and his family. The scene was tumultuous, one insider said. Some advised Kennedy to hang in for one more ballot, to see if he could pick up a chunk of delegates from Ken Dryden, who had just withdrawn.
But, as one strategist put it, Kennedy ultimately decided he'd be taking "a big risk waiting one ballot too many." He walked to Dion and delivered most of his delegates, catapulting Dion from third to first place on the third ballot.
It was the Rae and Ignatieff camps who turned out to have waited one ballot too many.
Shortly before voting on the third ballot finished, some Ignatieff organizers tried to negotiate a deal with the Rae camp. Montreal MP Denis Coderre, Ignatieff's national campaign co-chair, made a direct appeal to the former NDP premier.
Coderre's pitch: the party would be finished in Quebec if Dion, the erstwhile unity minister and hardline scourge of separatists, won. He argued that Rae should throw his Quebec delegates to Ignatieff.
Rae politely declined, telling Coderre: "I understand what you're saying but I think it's too late."
Indeed, insiders say Rae could not have directed his delegates to Ignatieff even had he wanted to. Ultimately, they flocked overwhelmingly to Dion.
Rae organizers contend that Ignatieff's Quebec delegates should have seen the writing on the wall after the second ballot, when Ignatieff's support grew only marginally. If if they'd moved at that point to Rae, Dion could have been short-circuited.
As it was, Rae was compelled to drop out after the third ballot. He did not endorse either Ignatieff or Dion and, in the interests of party unity, released his delegates to do as they pleased.
Ignatieff, who had dropped to second, actually headed out of his pen and started to walk towards Rae's box. His aides said he simply wanted to shake his old friend's hand.
The Rae camp took it as an inappropriate attempt to make it appear that Rae was endorsing his one-time university room mate. A scuffle ensued as Rae's organizers blocked some overly zealous Ignatieff supporters who were leading their candidate toward his rival's box.
On stage later, as Dion celebrated his stunning come-from-behind victory, Rae and Ignatieff finally gave each other what appeared to be a heartfelt bear hug. But by then the cameras were no longer on either of them.

Copyright © 2006 Canadian Press