It's fair to say that, going into this past weekend's delegate voting, Ontario Liberal leadership candidate Sandra Pupatello had some cause to be concerned.
The momentum in the race seemed to be with rival Kathleen Wynne after she'd copped the endorsement of leadership contender Glen Murray, who dropped out of the race last week, and former Liberal MPP John Wilkinson. The latter is seen as especially important for Wynne in winning over rural delegates.
But Pupatello re-affirmed her status as frontrunner coming out of the weekend voting to choose Dalton McGuinty's successor - and the next Premier of Ontario (at least, until the next election) - with 504 delegates to Wynne's 463. The remaining leadership contenders finished as follows: Gerard Kennedy with 257 delegates, Harinder Takhar 244, Charles Sousa 198 and Eric Hoskins 104.
Pupatello's sitting pretty, but it's still a long way to the finish. She'll need the votes of 50 per cent of the delegates plus one to be officially crowned queen. She's still a few hundred votes away from that.
On top of the delegates who took part in the voting this weekend there are another 400 to 800 ex-officio delegates (depending on whose numbers you believe), whose votes are also up for grabs. Those didn't have to declare which of the candidates they're voting for.
There are also 67 "independents" who declared their intention to vote for Murray before he dropped out. There's no telling where they'll go. Although it's reasonable to assume most will end up with Wynne, that's not a given.
Judging by political sensibilities, I'd say Takhar and Sousa will end up in Pupatello's camp, with Kennedy and Hoskins in Wynne's. The backroom wheeling and dealing has already begun. But anything can happen on the convention floor. Where the Liberals are concerned, there's sure to be promises broken and blood spilled.
It's an all-out sprint to the January 25-27 convention at the Mattamy Centre. Here's where the challengers sit and what delegates will be considering when they cast their votes.
Sandra Pupatello: The prohibitive favourite has failed to live up to the saviour billing after leaving a Bay Street job to enter the race. On the contrary, Pupatello has appeared surprisingly scripted in leadership debates. She's been at her best when she's been allowed to be herself. The lackluster performance could be explained as dustiness, after being out of politics for a while, or, more likely, Pupatello looking beyond this race to the next election. She's accumulated an impressive list of endorsements and probably is the best choice for Libs looking to beat Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath. But attacks from some in Pupatello's camp against her competitors may have alienated those whose support she'll need to take her over the top.
Kathleen Wynne: Most expected Wynne to be a contender, but few expected her to be going into the January 25 convention weekend in second. The big question for Wynne is how many delegates will make her their second choice. Not an easy one to answer. That she's a woman is a decided advantage. That she's from Toronto may prove more daunting for Grit delegates outside the 416. Wynne's come a long way, shedding her activist roots to become a pretty slick political operator.
Gerard Kennedy: Kennedy's is an odd story. How the one-time Grit golden boy ended up heading up the ranks of the disaffected in the party is a bit of a mystery. There have been rare flashes during this leadership campaign when it has been easy to see why Kennedy was once seen as the future of the party. But criticizing the party you're running to be leader of doesn't usually work as a winning strategy. And Kennedy has been the most out there on the Libs' ongoing troubles with teachers unions. Enough of his popularity remains intact, however, to make noise at this convention. In the past when he's been in a position to affect outcomes, Kennedy's decisions have been the wrong ones. This may be his last chance to make the magnanimous gesture and get back into the party's good graces because the coveted win doesn't look to be in the cards.
Harinder Takhar: Takhar has been focusing his efforts on Peel Region, signing up party members in Brampton and Mississauga to support his leadership bid. And it has paid off. Takhar looks good going into the convention a surprising fourth, enough to make him a wild card. His influence may go beyond the 244 delegates in his camp. Not bad for a guy whose candidacy was derided by most Queen's Park observers as nothing more than an ego-trip when it was launched. Give this to Takhar - for a Liberal leadership that hasn't exactly been overflowing with big ideas, he's brought a few talking points to the table.
Charles Sousa: Tacks furthest right of Lib competitors, which is not the direction the party wants to be heading if it's serious about renewal, the oft-mentioned buzz word of this leadership campaign. Another problem for Sousa: his Mississauga riding is ground zero for the famous gas plant fiasco that the Liberals would sooner forget. He has not exactly exceeded expectations, even though expectations were low to begin with. Sousa showed himself to have a tenuous grasp of big city issues during the last of five leadership debates. It has proved a surprisingly tepid campaign given his high profile help.
Eric Hoskins: The self-described dark horse in this race has been courting the rural and youth vote hard - and trying his best not to offend his competitors in the hopes of maybe (it's a big maybe) coming up the middle, like Dalton McGuinty did in 1996. People remember Premier Dad coming from fourth on the first ballot to win that race. What's often forgotten about that piece of political history is that McGuinty was fourth on the second ballot, too, and with fewer votes than the first. For Hoskins it'd have to be a goat's path to the top of the mountain for a similar repeat to happen. He hasn't exactly set himself apart from the competition during the debates. On the contrary, his lack of political experience has shown the closer we've gotten to crunch time. Hoskins has perhaps played his cards too carefully after a campaign launch that hinted at a few surprises.