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Steven Del Duca speaks during the candidate showcase for the Ontario Liberal Party 2020 Leadership Election, in Toronto, on Nov. 28, 2019.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Liberal leadership front-runner Steven Del Duca is heading to next month’s party convention with 56 per cent of the elected delegates – making him almost certain to win.

The Ontario Liberal Party said Wednesday that of 2,084 delegates elected in ridings across Ontario over the weekend, Mr. Del Duca, the former minister of transportation in the government of Kathleen Wynne, won 1,171, or 56 per cent.

The results mean Mr. Del Duca, 46, is likely to win the right to steer the rebuilding process after the party’s disastrous 2018 election result, which reduced it to just seven MPPs after governing the province for 15 years. (It now has six MPPs and remains without official party status in the Ontario Legislature.)

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A vote on the first ballot at the March 7 convention of more than 50 per cent would clinch the leadership of the party, which has rebounded in the polls despite its lack of a permanent leader, as support sags for the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Doug Ford and the Opposition NDP under Andrea Horwath.

It will now likely be up to Mr. Del Duca to capitalize on that support and revive a divided, dispirited party that has struggled to raise money since losing power. He has said he anticipates attacks to come quickly from his PC opponents, who could remind voters of his 2016 approval of a GO commuter rail station in his own Toronto-area riding and his ties to the unpopular Ms. Wynne.

Mr. Del Duca, who lost his seat in Vaughan in 2018, is a lifelong party activist and a former political staffer who has also worked for the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario. He was seen as the party establishment’s choice to replace Ms. Wynne.

But Liberal Party members across Ontario voted overwhelmingly for his delegates, dwarfing the showings of his rivals – many of whom called for more sweeping changes to the party’s constitution and policies after the punishment it received from voters.

Toronto MPP Michael Coteau, also a former Wynne cabinet minister, won 371 delegates. Political scientist Kate Graham, a failed candidate in 2018 from London, Ont., who launched a probe of the party’s loss, finished third with 273 delegates, surprising many party insiders with a strong showing.

Former Wynne education minister Mitzie Hunter, a current MPP and once thought to be a potential contender, trailed Ms. Graham with just 130 delegates. Failed Toronto-area MPP candidate Alvin Tedjo won 72 delegates, while Ottawa lawyer Brenda Hollingsworth took 25. Another 42 delegates were elected as independents.

Mr. Del Duca’s message in the leadership battle focused on the need to rebuild and start fundraising quickly, in order to do battle with Mr. Ford in the 2022 election.

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While now likely reduced to a formality by Mr. Del Duca’s commanding lead, the party’s convention in Mississauga could also be attended by up to 640 ex officio delegates, including party executives, riding association presidents and federal MPs and MPPs – all of whom are also entitled to vote. However, Mr. Del Duca’s website says he has secured endorsements from at least 110 ex officio delegates, and Liberal leadership campaigners only expect about 300 to show up.

Despite Mr. Del Duca’s overwhelming numbers, there remain two leadership debates, including a televised one on Feb. 19.

In an e-mailed statement provided to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Del Duca thanked his supporters and his opponents and said he was now close to winning more than 200 ex officio delegates. He also said he would keep campaigning and reaching out to Liberals.

“We will emerge from our convention united and ready to take on and defeat Doug Ford," his statement reads.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Coteau congratulated all the campaigns and said the party has a bright future. In a statement on her website, Ms. Graham acknowledged that Mr. Del Duca was likely to win but said she would keep advocating for the party to focus on the environment and inequality, and for it to decentralize its decision-making. Ms. Hunter issued a statement thanking supporters and vowing to fight for “a modern, and inclusive party.”

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