TORONTO - One of the two front-runners in the Ontario Liberal leadership race took off the gloves Friday, as more than 2,000 delegates cast their ballots to pick a new leader and the province's next premier.
MPP Kathleen Wynne took a not-so-veiled shot at front-runner Sandra Pupatello, suggesting Ontario would be heading for a general election if Pupatello — who wants to win a seat before recalling the prorogued parliament _ became Liberal leader.
"The fact is that I have a seat and we don't have to go into a byelection, and we don't have to think about going into a general election," said Wynne.
Wynne has promised to recall the legislature by Feb. 19 if she becomes premier, something she said Pupatello would have trouble doing without a seat in the house.
"There is no byelection in my path," Wynne said.
Pupatello was quick to respond, saying Ontarians won't mind waiting.
"The day I launched my leadership campaign, I said that the moment I have a seat we will be in the house," she told reporters.
"It's not going to take us very long, and in fact, our house always opened towards the end of March and I hope that's going to be the case."
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has offered to give up his seat if Pupatello wins the race.
The leadership convention was called in a rush after Premier Dalton McGuinty stunned the public and his own party when he announced his resignation October 15.
Wynne said people across the province are not happy with the situation.
"The antidote to prorogation is to get back Feb. 19, the date on the legislative calendar," she said.
"I have heard in every corner of the province really that I've travelled people saying that they want us back in the legislature."
Pupatello, the former Windsor-West MPP who did not seek re-election in 2011, was the leader in committed first-ballot votes heading into the convention with 27.4 per cent, and with about one-quarter of the ex-officios on her side.
Wynne, who represents Toronto-Don Valley West, is a close second in delegate support at 25 per cent.
There was a steady parade of delegates Friday, most of whom are committed to a specific candidate for the first ballot only, who cast their votes as they moved through the registration area at the former Maple Leaf Gardens, the site of McGuinty's leadership victory in 1996.
Leadership contender Harinder Takhar was in early to register — refuting reports that he's either been a stalking horse for Pupatello or that he's made a deal with fellow candidate Gerard Kennedy.
"I'm not making any deals, I'm going for the top job," Takhar said.
Kennedy also denied he was making a deal with Takhar, and said all of the six candidates had been meeting with each other prior to the convention.
"If some people are leaning in my direction, that's obviously because of all the work we are doing towards that," said Kennedy.
"But nobody has any assurances of how this is going to turn out, and that's what makes it an interesting way of choosing a leader."
Kennedy, who lost the 1996 leadership race to McGuinty and also lost a 2006 bid for the federal Liberal leadership, was in third place in delegate support at 14 per cent, followed closely by Takhar, the former government services minister, at 13.25 per cent.
Also running are former labour minister Charles Sousa, who pulled almost 11 per cent of first-ballot delegates, and former children's services minister Eric Hoskins, who finished last in delegate support at 5.6 per cent.
"It's still a wide open contest," Sousa said Friday as he cast his ballot.
Interim federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae also registered Friday morning, but would not say who he's supporting in the provincial contest.
"I'm not backing anybody (publicly)," Rae said in an interview.
"I've decided who I'm supporting on an individual basis but I don't really feel it's appropriate for me as interim leader to come in and say this is who I'm supporting."
The convention floor itself, on a hockey rink two stories above the old ice surface in the historic Gardens, was closed most of Friday while the candidates rehearsed their presentations for their final half-hour pitch to delegates Saturday morning. The leadership convention was not scheduled to officially open until Friday evening when the party pays tribute to McGuinty.
Second-ballot voting is expected to begin around 1 p.m. Saturday, and only the last place candidate will be forced off each ballot until one of them gets over 50 per cent.
There were about 100 protesters on the narrow sidewalk outside the entrance to the convention on Friday evening, and delegates did their best to quickly slip through the crowd to get inside.
The sound of drums, bullhorns and pots and pans rang out while anti-Bill 115 placards held by elementary teachers bobbed above the line of protesters.
"What's disgusting? Union busting!" the crowd chanted.
About 1,800 selected delegates and another 400 so-called ex-officios — party executives, current and former members of the legislature, MPs and even defeated candidates — are eligible to vote for the new leader.
Many predict the Liberals are looking at a three- or four- or five-ballot convention, which means the race could go on until late Saturday, or even early Sunday.
In the past year, the minority Liberal government has been rocked by scandals, including the costly cancellation of two gas plants, a police probe at the province's air ambulance service and a nasty fight with public school teachers.
The question many Ontarians will be asking Sunday morning is: Will the province be heading for an early general election, or will the new leader try to work with one of the opposition parties to keep the minority government alive.
"They're going to be looking hard at the kind of (publicity) bump they get coming out of the convention," said Bryan Evans of Ryerson University in Toronto.
"I'm sure they will (get one), but will it be sufficient to inspire confidence so they can win a general election? Only the (winner) and the people around them can be the judge of that."
Henry Jacek, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the Liberals know they're in third place in popular support right now and likely couldn't even win another minority government, so they're in no hurry for a general election.
"The party is saying we need somebody who's going to carry us over the next two years," he said.
"There are going to be a bunch of people saying we don't want to turn the government over to somebody else right away."