SOME of Tim Holding's mates call him "Twinkle" - because he's a little star. The state cabinet minister who was still missing on Mount Feathertop last night has always been a precocious overachiever.
Those mates were clinging to hope last night because Holding is also a fitness freak. A former Army Reserve commando, he runs marathons, has walked the Kokoda Track and knows his way around Victoria's high country. His family made the point last night: "Tim is the strongest person we know, emotionally and physically."
The boyishly enthusiastic Holding, who turned 37 last Friday week, is one of the most influential and high-profile members of the Brumby cabinet. That doesn't mean he's universally popular. An overweening ambition, a ruthless streak and a rapid rise through the ranks has seen to that.
But his friends and enemies across the ALP agree on one thing: Holding is unlikely to be satisfied with his political career unless he becomes party leader. And even his most caustic critics in caucus concede he is likely to be a strong candidate for the job when John Brumby retires or is rejected by the voters.
With a trade unionist grandfather and Labor father, there was never any doubt that Holding, a brilliant and politically attuned Haileybury College student, was destined for the ALP. The signs of a rising political star were there early. He won election to Waverley Council as a 19-year-old in 1992 and became national president of Young Labor two years later.
Holding was also keen on the army life (and retains a passion for military history, along with an obsessive interest in US politics, especially mercurial, disgraced president Richard Nixon). He spent two years in the Army Reserve, serving in the 1st Commando Regiment, before a clash of priorities led to a fateful decision. One night a parade for his unit clashed with a council meeting. Holding chose the political path.
Holding was mentored by the godfather of the Victorian ALP Right, Robert Ray, during a three-year stint as a twenty-something in the then senator's electorate office.
Ray subsequently described his former protege in words that resonate with his caucus colleagues: Holding was a man of "enormous intellect, great drive and ambition, and a great single-mindedness that sometimes was an advantage and sometimes a disadvantage".
Using the political smarts gained in Ray's office, 27-year-old Holding won preselection for the safe Labor seat of Springvale (now Lyndhurst) before the 1999 election, after a bitter battle with sitting member and leading light in the Labor Left, Eddie Micallef.
Then new premier Steve Bracks regarded the Holding-for-Micallef exchange as a big advance for Labor. After Labor's thumping election win in 2002, Holding was elevated to cabinet, as manufacturing and export minister. In early 2005 he got his big break when Bracks promoted him to the police portfolio. On his first day in the job, Holding made clear he was not eyeing off his predecessor Andre Haermeyer's collection of teddy bears, saying: "I'm not one for soft toys."
Bracks, with paternal affection, dubbed his new police minister a "rising star".
It was in the police portfolio that Holding suffered his first major setback. In July 2005, Holding remained unaware of the unauthorised release of police files on hundreds of Victorians after he refused to read a brief on the incident because the covering page contained two errors. When the breach become public in August, Holding at first said he knew nothing about it, before being forced to admit his department had tried to alert him.
He suffered a second setback when then new Premier John Brumby preferred John Lenders to him as his Treasurer.
But last night, the prospect of advancement was the last thing on the minds of the loved ones of Victorian Labor's star.