Ontario Liberal contenders take swings as convention begins

Candidates vying to become Ontario's next Liberal leader and the province's premier turned up the rhetoric today, as the party's leadership convention got underway in Toronto.

Friday's program was billed as a tribute to departing premier Dalton McGuinty, but that didn't stop candidates from taking positions against their opponents, with rumours swirling about back-room deals brewing for delegate support.

Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne took a not-so-veiled shot at Sandra Pupatello, a former MPP from Windsor. Wynne, who along with Pupatello is a frontrunner in the six-candidate race, told reporters she wanted to make it clear to everyone that she would recall the legislature by Feb. 19 if she becomes premier following this weekend's convention.

Wynne has promised to recall the legislature by Feb. 19 if she becomes premier, something she said Pupatello would have trouble doing because she currently does not have a legislature seat.

"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.

"There is no byelection in my path," Wynne said.

Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature in October when he announced his resignation. Wynne said people across Ontario want to see the legislature resume sitting.

"The antidote to prorogation is to get back Feb. 19, the date on the legislative calendar," she said.

Pupatello responded quickly, saying Ontarians won't mind waiting for her to secure a seat. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has offered to give up his seat in the riding of Windsor-Tecumseh if Pupatello wins the race.

"The day I launched my leadership campaign, I said that the moment I have a seat we will be in the house," said Pupatello.

Pupatello, the former Windsor West MPP and cabinet minister who chose not to 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.

Leadership contender Harinder Takhar was in early to register Friday, using the moment to reject 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 striking a deal with Takhar, and said all of the candidates had been meeting with each other prior to the convention.

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, enters the convention 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 and will likely drop off after the first ballot.

About 2,200 party members will form the voting pool at the convention. That number includes about 1,800 elected delegates who've committed their support to a specific candidate on the first ballot. After that, those delegates are free to shift support to another candidate.

Just before 7 p.m. a large group of protesters outside the convention venue spilled onto the street, forcing police to close westbound traffic at Carlton Street. The group was mainly comprised of teachers and their supporters, angry over the Liberals handling of a labour dispute with teachers that continues to simmer.

Teachers angry at the Liberals for imposing contracts on public school teachers earlier this month are also expected to protest outside the historic building, which used to be home to the NHL's Maple Leafs but is now a supermarket on the lower level, and athletic centre and ice rink on the upper levels.

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