MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - The latest candidate for the provincial Liberal leadership says he would speed up plans to erase Ontario's deficit if elected premier.

Harinder Takhar says he would cut the $14.4-billion deficit by 2016-17, a year earlier than the target set out by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.

Takhar made the pledge this morning as he formally launched his campaign to succeed Premier Dalton McGuinty in Mississauga, west of Toronto.

Speaking before a roomful of supporters, the former government services minister vowed to focus on job creation and helping out small businesses and families.

He promised to establish a tax credit for businesses that would cover 10 per cent of the first year's salary for new hires, and introduce several measures meant to protect consumers.

Takhar, 61, is the seventh and last candidate to jump into a leadership race packed with former Liberal cabinet ministers and MPPs.

Most of those vying for the Liberals' top job are from the Toronto area, with only Sandra Pupatello — who is based in Windsor — coming from outside the provincial capital.

Pupatello and Gerard Kennedy are the only leadership candidates who are not currently members of the legislature, but both are former cabinet ministers.

All of the other candidates — Kathleen Wynne, Glenn Murray, Charles Sousa and Eric Hoskins — had to follow McGuinty's order to quit cabinet before launching their leadership campaigns.

They'll square off in a series of debates around the province starting next month. The leadership convention will be held at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto Jan. 25-26.

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