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Paul Martin's campaign juggernaut lived up to predictions of dominance last night, sweeping over rival Sheila Copps in the first of three days of leadership voting expected to clinch Mr. Martin's victory as Liberal leader and Canada's next prime minister.

The trend toward crushing victory indicated Mr. Martin will be the unofficial prime-minister-designate by Sunday night, five months before Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is scheduled to step down.

With that prospect of two leaders of the governing party both sitting in the House of Commons, Liberal government insiders said there was increasing speculation that Mr. Chrétien would prorogue the Commons by Nov. 7, closing Parliament until he leaves office.

That would prevent the two leaders' sitting on the government benches facing opposition politicians who would try to drive a wedge bewteen them.

Although the leadership convention is not until November, this weekend's delegate-selection votes appeared set to crown Mr. Martin as the next prime minister. Liberal Party members will also vote directly for their next leader, a choice which the delegates must follow on the convention's first ballot.

Mr. Martin took 707 delegates compared with 47 for Ms. Copps in partial results from six provinces.

There were nine independent delegates elected, all in Jean Chrétien's Saint Maurice riding. That represented about two-thirds of the delegate races last night.

Mr. Martin's campaign machine was eyeing the magic number of 2,902 delegates that will assure his victory as leader.

With many counting his victory as a foregone conclusion, Mr. Martin's campaign was stoking supporters to turn out.

Martin's faithful told workers to spend the weekend "phoning every Liberal you know" to persuade them to vote.

Mr. Martin voted for himself in a church in his Lasalle-Emard riding in Montreal, taking pains to play up the importance of the balloting.

"The upcoming convention is important for the future of the country," he said. "The delegates who will have been chosen here not only get their chance to choose the new leader, but also there are going to be some very, very important policy decisions."

Ms. Copps delivered a campaign speech earlier yesterday at the Canadian Club in her native Hamilton, repeating her vision for the country, and taking barely veiled pot shots at the front-runner.

"I think it is time we became real Liberals again," she said, referring to Mr. Martin's more conservative stance. "The lessons of the last decade are clear. Progressive social policy and good economic policy go hand in hand. We need both."

In three days of voting, party members will elect 4,733 convention delegates from Liberal riding associations, students clubs, women's commissions and aboriginal commissions. There are 531,536 Liberal party members eligible to vote for delegates this weekend.

Because there are also another 1,071 automatic delegates -- MPs, senators, party officials, and some selected by provincial Liberal associations -- Mr. Martin must win more than 61.3 per cent of this weekend's delegates to clinch victory.

That makes 2,902 delegates the magic number to make Paul Martin the next prime minister.

That is widely expected to happen, so much so that Mr. Martin's campaign would consider a real success 75 per cent or higher. Most Liberal insiders expected a bigger number, leaving Martin organizers to beg supporters to go to the polls.

In British Columbia, Mr. Martin's chief organizer, Mark Marissen, sent out an e-mail to local organizers, urging them to get out the vote.

"Our campaign's greatest threat is complacency -- the idea that 'Paul has already won the leadership,' " he wrote.

He pushed campaign volunteers to spend the weekend "phoning every Liberal you know" and urged them to provide drivers for party members to go to the polls. He said that Ms. Copps fielded a full slate of potential delegates in British Columbia, in contrast to other provinces, and insisted, "Sheila Copps is fighting us very aggressively."

Ms. Copps, always considered a long shot, saw her campaign organization limp into the vote, with her team not even on the ballot in several ridings.

Her prospects were deemed slim by most Liberals, who said she could claim a moral victory if she scored near 20 per cent.

In Halifax, a slow-pitch softball game across the street from a poll attracted a larger crowd than the delegate-selection session, on a rare sultry Friday evening. Voters trickled into a Legion hall.

"I don't think the good weather is doing us any favours on a Friday night," said David Reid, returning officer at a polling station where 12 delegates for a Halifax riding and 21 others for various youth, aboriginal and women's groups would be elected.

The balloting lacked the excitement and hoopla of the traditional packed halls, where would-be delegates made emotional appeals on behalf of leadership hopefuls.

John Young, a former provincial Liberal Party president, anticipated about 500 of the about 2,200 people who were eligible to cast ballots would vote.

A Copps campaign spokesman said Ms. Copps will be spending the weekend telephoning volunteers and potential delegates to encourage them to vote.

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