TORONTO - The race to replace Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty kicks into high gear today as provincial Liberals cast their ballots to pick a new leader.
Six candidates are vying for McGuinty's job, with the two front-runners — Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne — heading into the leadership convention in a virtual tie.
About 1,800 delegates and another 400 so called "ex-officios" — party executives, current and former MPs and members of the provincial legislature — already cast their committed first ballots Friday, with the results expected early this afternoon.
Second-ballot voting will begin around 1 p.m. The last-place candidate will be forced off each ballot until one of them gets over 50 per cent.
Political observers predict the Liberals are looking at a three- or four- or even five-ballot convention, which means the race could go on until late Saturday, or early Sunday.
The leadership convention was called after McGuinty's surprise resignation in October, when he also prorogued the parliament and said he wanted a new leader in place by the end of January.
There's not a lot of policy differences between the candidates — all have said they're prepared to work with the opposition parties to keep the minority government alive.
Wynne took an indirect shot at her closest rival Friday, saying Ontario could be heading for a general election if Pupatello — who wants to win a seat before recalling the parliament — became Liberal leader.
Wynne said prorogation has angered Ontarians, and she would be able to recall the legislature by Feb. 19 if she is chosen leader.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has offered to step aside to allow Pupatello to run in his riding. The former Windsor-West MPP, who did not seek re-election in 2011, believes she could win the byelection and recall the legislature by the end of March.
Pupatello leads in committed first-ballot votes with 27.4 per cent, and says she has 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.
Gerard Kennedy, who lost the 1996 leadership race to McGuinty and also lost a 2006 bid for the federal Liberal leadership, is in third place at 14 per cent, followed closely by Harinder 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.
In recent years, the Liberal government has been plagued with scandals, including the costly cancellation of two gas plants, a police probe at the province's air ambulance service and a nasty labour battle with public school teachers.
Thousands of union members from across the province have planned a massive protest Saturday outside the Liberal convention at Toronto's old Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Ontario Federation of Labour said the protest will include students, environmentalists, Aboriginals and other groups angry at the government's budget cuts and a controversial law used to impose contracts on public school teachers.
"The new premier will see the many faces of their opposition — from now and into the next election," OFL President Sid Ryan said in a statement.