Trifon Haitas, a Greek-Canadian journalist who describes himself as pro-life, lost the nomination Thursday night to advertising executive Grant Gordon.
A group calling itself Liberals for Life backed Haitas in his bid to run under the Liberal banner in a March 19 byelection in the riding of Toronto-Danforth.
The New Democrats have selected Craig Scott, a human rights lawyer, for the race. Andrew Keyes, a communications consultant, is running for the Conservatives.
The byelection was called because of the death last August of NDP Leader Jack Layton, who had snatched the riding from Liberal Dennis Mills in 2004. The seat was also held by the Liberals' interim leader, Bob Rae, in the early 1980s while he was with the NDP.
Neither candidate brought up abortion rights directly Thursday as they addressed the packed auditorium ahead of the vote.
But in his speech, Gordon alluded to the controversy surrounding his rival.
"I don't need to be a woman to fight for women's rights, including the right to make their own choices about their own bodies," he said, setting off cheers and whistles in the crowd.
Haitas _ whose endorsement by Liberals for Life and the Campaign Life Coalition made abortion rights a hot topic in the nomination _ avoided the topic in his speech, but later maintained he had no intention of reopening the debate.
He also denied running as a single-issue candidate, stressing that abortion is only one of many issues of concern to him and voters in Toronto-Danforth.
"Definitely people are concerned about pro-life issues, as they're concerned about poverty, as they're concerned about their old-age pension," he told reporters.
Still, his bid alarmed some Liberals, who said they worry single-issue anti-abortion activists could take over the party as it struggles to bounce back from last year's crushing election.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae has stressed the party remains pro-choice and he expects all Liberal MPs to fall in line.
Rae said this week that he trusted party members would "exercise their good judgment and make a decision."
There are currently no legal restrictions on abortion in Canada and Haitas has said he respects the Liberal party's position that the debate should not be reopened.
But the apparent re-emergence of Liberals for Life has troubled some longstanding party members.
In the lead-up to Thursday's vote, Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, chair of the Liberal women's caucus, said it's "worrying" to see the abortion issue being raised once again in a nomination meeting.
Liberals for Life spearheaded a move to take over dormant riding associations and nominate pro-life candidates in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the party was in a weakened state.
The group seemed to disappear after 1992, when Liberals gave their party leader the power to appoint candidates — a move aimed squarely at pre-empting takeover attempts by single-issue groups, although it was eventually used for other purposes.
However, at last month's Liberal convention, delegates expressed concern that conditions are once again ripe for an attempted takeover by single-issue groups, given that the party was reduced to a historic low of 34 seats in last May's election. Party officials estimate Liberal associations are dormant in some 80 ridings across the country and weak in many others.
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