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Stéphane Dion's campaign is saying its support is now growing the fastest among party officials who will vote next month at the Liberal leadership convention, as the Montreal MP fights a hotly contested race for third with Gerard Kennedy.

Mr. Dion's campaign will announce the support of a half-dozen new "ex officio" delegates this week -- touting it as a sign that his bid has gained momentum since he placed fourth in delegate elections five weeks ago.

Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Dion are entwined in a combination of competition and co-operation, at the same time fighting a close battle to place third in early balloting and discussing an alliance. The support of automatic delegates who get to vote because of their party post could decide which candidate comes out ahead.

The new supporters to be announced by Mr. Dion's campaign this week will bring to 105 the number of ex-officio delegates publicly backing the Montreal MP.

That will place Mr. Dion second only to Michael Ignatieff in public endorsements from such automatic delegates -- mostly MPs, senators, riding presidents and defeated candidates -- according to tracking of public endorsements from the roughly 880 ex officios by websites such as Wikipedia.

It also suggests that since elected delegates were chosen five weeks ago, Mr. Dion's bid has won more endorsements from automatic ex officio delegates than any other campaign, slightly outpacing Bob Rae -- although the campaigns of Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Rae insisted they have more ex officio backers that have not yet been listed in public.

Mr. Dion and Mr. Kennedy met face to face Friday in the latest effort to feel out an alliance, which would see whoever finishes fourth at the convention back the third-place candidate.

In theory, at least, that could push one of them ahead of second-place Mr. Rae and into a final-ballot contest with Mr. Ignatieff, who is considered the front-runner.

"I think they are advanced. I think there's a recognition of the synergies there. But nothing's been formalized," Ajax-Pickering MP Mark Holland, Mr. Kennedy's Ontario campaign co-chair, said of the talks.

"I think their comfort level with one another has gone up."

Although Mr. Dion's new ex officio backers are not household names in the party, they represent votes at the convention -- and some cited recent shifts in the campaign for their endorsement.

Niagara Falls riding president James Curran, who withdrew his endorsement of Mr. Ignatieff over the candidate's support for recognizing Quebec as a nation, is now formally backing Mr. Dion.

Former cabinet minister Paul DeVillers, who said that the debate over recognizing Quebec as a nation reinforced his view that Mr. Dion is best to handle national unity, is also on the list -- as are defeated candidates Jim Mitchell, Bill Caton, René Berthiaume and Herb Ibbitson, riding president in Ontario's Haldimand-Norfolk constituency.

The public support of ex officio delegates is important for candidates as they head into the final weeks before the convention, because it provides a sense that their campaign is gaining strength. For Mr. Dion and Mr. Kennedy, it could also be key to their hopes.

Advisers to both candidates say talks on a possible alliance are key to their strategy, but the catch is that the winner of any potential deal will be whoever finishes third, making the competition for that spot more intense.

The next Liberal leader will be chosen Dec. 2 at the convention in Montreal. Roughly 4,500 of the delegates were elected by riding associations and clubs, while about another 880 are ex officios who are automatically entitled to vote because of their current or former party posts.

In delegate elections five weeks ago, Mr. Kennedy finished third, with 17.3 per cent of the vote, while Mr. Dion won 16 per cent. But the margin was only 57 delegates, and the support of ex officio delegates could make the difference.

Mr. Kennedy's campaign insists it is still ahead, and expects a better turnout of delegates at the convention.

Mr. Dion's campaign said that what will matter will be who is ahead on the second ballot.

It is unclear, however, whether Mr. Dion is as comfortable with the potential role of kingmaker as is Mr. Kennedy, the youngest of the four main contenders.

Some of Mr. Kennedy's advisers argue that playing kingmaker for Mr. Dion would make him the "voice of English Canada," and place him as the heir apparent to a Quebec leader.

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