10/22/2013 01:36 EDT | Updated 12/22/2013 05:12 EST

Manitoba Liberal leadership hopefuls work to get out votes as convention nears

WINNIPEG - The three people running to lead the Manitoba Liberal Party are trying to ensure their supporters actually follow through and cast ballots as the clock ticks toward this weekend's leadership convention.

Dougald Lamont, Rana Bokhari and Bob Axworthy are fighting over roughly 2,100 votes up for grabs under a system that allows all party members to vote via mail, at an early poll Wednesday or in person at Saturday's convention.

"It's just about getting out the vote ... reaching out to our supporters and making sure they have a way to get to the polls," Bokhari said earlier this week.

Bokhari, a 35-year-old lawyer, has no political experience, but has a law degree and has successfully raised funds for non-profit charities. Her focus has been on rebuilding the party and bringing in new members.

The Liberals had only 700 members a year ago. Her team brought in 620 new members before last month's cutoff date for eligible voters, she said.

Axworthy, 59, has a long history in the Liberal party and has a well-known name. His brother Lloyd was a longtime federal cabinet minister and another brother, Tom, was a chief speech writer for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

Axworthy himself has had less success. He has declared bankruptcy twice — the most recent time in 2009 — and was organizer of the party's disastrous 2011 election showing. They were reduced to just one seat and 7.5 per cent of the vote compared with two seats and 12 per cent of the vote in the previous election.

Axworthy surprised many, however, when he finished a strong second to Tory Leader Brian Pallister in a 2012 byelection in Fort Whyte, a Progressive Conservative stronghold.

Axworthy said he has brought in somewhere between 200 to 300 new members for the leadership race, and has also spent a lot of time going door-to-door talking to existing members.

Those members might be more likely to turn up to vote.

"We have found ... that there are a lot of longtime members of the party, in the sense that they've been there through thick and thin, (and) that they will turn out," Axworthy said.

Lamont, a 44-year-old small business owner and vice-president in a technology firm, has promoted himself as a combination of experience and generational change. He has worked on past Liberal campaigns, either as a communications director or in policy development.

All three candidates have focused this week on ensuring their supporters either mail in ballots, which have to be received by the party by Friday afternoon, vote in the advance poll at party headquarters or cast ballots at the convention.

If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, the third-place candidate will be dropped and party members at the convention will vote again. Advance voters and mail-in ballots will have indicated a second choice in the event their preferred leader gets dropped.

The three hopefuls say they have not held any negotiations so far to curry favour on a second ballot.

"There have been no formal discussions with anyone," Lamont wrote in an email.

The leadership campaign has been a relatively polite affair with only a few tense moments.

Bokhari ruffled a few feathers at one of the party's debates when she claimed to have a greater work ethic than her counterparts.

Axworthy accused Lamont and Bokhari at a recent luncheon of being dismissive of older people.

"My opponents believe age and experience is something to be cast aside," Axworthy told roughly 35 party faithful last week.

Axworthy also took offence to a fake Twitter account in his name. He hinted that someone in the party was behind it and called on fellow Liberals to put an "end to the era of dirty tricks".

Lamont rejected the idea that any Liberal was behind the fake account.

"At the outset, we all committed to running positive and ethical campaigns, and my team and I have stuck to that. I have every reason to believe that everyone else has as well, because they are principled people who don't pull those stunts."

Whoever wins the leadership will be in tough to rebuild the party. Without official status in the legislature — something that requires at least four seats — the Liberals don't have a lot of funding or staff.

The party is offering the next leader a salary of $50,000, based in part on fundraising events such as a gala dinner next month with former prime minister Jean Chretien.

Recent opinion polls suggest Liberal support is rising, although the party has seen similar jumps in 2003 and 2005, only to fall back again on election day. The party is hoping that this time will be different under a new leader.

Outgoing leader Jon Gerrard, who failed to gain traction with voters in four elections, announced his plan to resign shortly after the 2011 vote. He plans to keep the party's lone seat in the legislature and has not ruled out running again in 2015.