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Friday's formal call of the federal Liberal leadership convention will bring at least two big-name candidates into the race immediately, when Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion launch their bids that day to succeed Paul Martin.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, meanwhile, has given his Education Minister, Gerard Kennedy, a deadline of today to decide whether he will be a candidate. A government source said Mr. McGuinty wants an answer from Mr. Kennedy before the weekly provincial cabinet meeting.

Mr. Dion will inject some symbolism into his announcement by making it at Montreal's Palais des Congrès, the site where he led international greenhouse-gas reduction negotiations in December and where the new Liberal leader will be chosen Dec. 2.

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Although he is best known as the letter-writing intergovernmental affairs minister who battled Quebec separatists after the 1995 referendum, his leadership campaign is inspired more by his work as environment minister under Mr. Martin, including a call for sustainable development to be the Liberals' top priority.

Mr. Dion, 50, the MP for the Montreal-area riding of Saint-Laurent-Cartierville is expected to be the most prominent Quebec candidate, although former cabinet minister Denis Coderre is still considering a bid.

Mr. Ignatieff, 58, is expected to formally launch his campaign in his Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore on the same day. This would be an audacious bid for the head of the Liberal Party that began as a rumour he would return from abroad little over a year ago, and was set on course when Mr. Ignatieff won a seat in the House of Commons in the Jan. 23 election.

Mr. Ignatieff, who left his Harvard University human-rights professorship to return to Canada last fall, has been touted as a charismatic visionary in the mould of Pierre Trudeau, but has played down the comparisons.

He is considered one of the front-runners in what is expected to be a large field of candidates.

But his extensive writings as an author and academic, including his support for military intervention to stop human-rights abuses and especially his backing of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, will likely become points of controversy, as they did in his campaign to become an MP this winter.

On Thursday, he delivered a lengthy speech in Ottawa in which he spoke of the need for a strong federal government to unite the country across racial, religious, and regional divides, and to ensure "roughly equal" social standards and services from province to province.

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Liberal insiders expect most of the leadership candidates will have declared their intentions within the next three weeks. The decision is particularly difficult for Mr. Kennedy, 45, because there is more at stake for him. While there is no requirement for him to resign his cabinet post, both the Ontario Premier and Mr. Kennedy have agreed that it would be unrealistic for him to attempt to juggle the leadership bid and one of the most important jobs at Queen's Park, a government source said. Mr. Kennedy has also hinted that he would resign as the Liberal member for the riding of Parkdale-High Park.

The departure of Mr. Kennedy, one of Ontario's most valued cabinet ministers, would be a major loss to the provincial government, both in the education portfolio and as the unofficial head of the progressive wing of the provincial Liberal party. His departure would also be a blow for Mr. McGuinty on a personal level. The two men enjoy a close working relationship and meet weekly as friends as well as colleagues.

Mr. Kennedy was not in the legislature yesterday. Last week, he told reporters the Premier has given him some latitude in making the decision, as long as he tends to his primary responsibilities in the legislature.

"I really enjoy what I'm doing now," he said. "Ultimately, it will be a decision I'll make instinctively, based on whether I think I'm the only person who can do that job."

So far, former cities minister John Godfrey and Toronto lawyer Martha Hall Findlay have declared their intention to run. Former junior finance minister Maurizio Bevilacqua has said he is "more than 99 per cent" in the race.

The list of other candidates considering a bid includes former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, and former ministers Ken Dryden, Scott Brison and Joe Volpe.

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