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The federal Liberals reinforced their ranks by one MP on Tuesday, winning a critical byelection in Labrador that will boost the minority government's chance of holding on to power in the months ahead.

Liberal candidate Todd Russell, former leader of the Labrador Metis Nation, took an early lead Tuesday night and never looked back.

With about 90 per cent of the polls reporting, Russell held about 50 per cent of the vote while Letto had about 30 per cent.

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The vote count was 4,772 to 3,153.

The NDP was far behind with about 1,000 votes.

The seat will be key in a fractious Parliament where the Liberals survived a do-or-die confidence vote on their budget last week.

The Speaker cast the deciding vote after Independent MP Chuck Cadman sided with the Liberals, leaving the minority government barely intact.

Suddenly, what had been an obscure election to replace late Liberal MP Lawrence O'Brien became the centre of political attention in Canada.

Four cabinet ministes descended on Labrador over the weekend to campaign for Mr. Russell.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was in the region the day after the budget vote, with deputy leader Peter MacKay not far behind.

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Five other Tory MPs fanned out across the far reaches of Labrador to secure votes for Conservative candidate Graham Letto.

The Liberal win means Prime Minister Paul Martin will have the edge in upcoming votes - and a firm say in the timing of the next general election.

Mr. Martin has said he will call an election early next year, after the release of the final report from the inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal.

The Conservatives had indicated they wouldn't pull the trigger until the fall, but their loss in Labrador means they'll likely have to wait.

With the Liberal win, the standings in the Commons are: Liberals, 134; Conservatives, 98; Bloc Quebecois 54, New Democrats 19; Independent, 3.

The pundits had said the Conservatives and the Liberals were in a tight race, but the Grits were always given the edge because the riding - held for 10 years by Mr. O'Brien until his death last December - has voted Liberal in every election except one.

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The Conservatives took the riding in 1968, in the midst of Trudeaumania, as voters chose an unusual way to show their disgust with Liberal Premier Joey Smallwood.

Still, with so much at stake in Tuesday's election, squads of politicians descended on the region over the weekend in an 11th-hour bid to secure votes.

Much of the riding, which has only 19,000 eligible voters, was blessed by sunny skies and temperatures reaching 20 C on Tuesday.

Voter turnout was described as strong, even though only 43 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in last year's general election.

Mr. Russell said he took nothing for granted, having criss-crossed Labrador's vast wilderness a number of times in a campaign that focused on local issues.

"I believe there's a sense that, 'Look, let's give the budget a chance, let's let the government have a chance to do the work,'" Mr. Russell said Tuesday as he and Liberal Senator Bill Romkey toured Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the region's largest city.

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"But at the same time, we've got to be focused on the people because this election is about the people in all of our communities all across Labrador."

There were three other long-shot candidates in the byelection: Independent Ern Condon, New Democrat Frances Fry, and Green Party member Jason Crummey.

The Conservatives had hoped the sponsorship scandal and the slow but steady decline of Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay under the Liberal watch would sway voters.

The base is the economic engine of central Labrador. But the European countries that have long used the base for low-level flight training have been pulling out one by one, leaving the region scrambling to find new users.

Mr. Harper had promised to move Canadian soldiers to the base to keep it viable.

"It appears as though we've doubled our support in Labrador," Conservative MP Jay Hill said from Ottawa. "We knew this was a very, very tough race when we got into it. It's probably the safest Liberal seat in the country. But we've cut into that lead substantially tonight."

Meanwhile, the Liberals promised the Canadian Forces will carry out a training exercise at the base in 2006, using CF-18 fighter jets from Bagotville, Que., and Cold Lake, Alta. As well, about $20 million will be spent on runway upgrades, the Liberals say.

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