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The New Democrats cruised to victory in Parkdale-High Park last night, snatching the west-end Toronto seat from Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals in a by-election race that ended in personal attacks and allegations of smear tactics.

Cheri DiNovo, a 56-year-old United Church minister and community activist, defeated city councillor Sylvia Watson.

A jubilant Ms. DiNovo danced onto the stage at her victory celebration last night. "The Liberal cabinet aligned themselves against you, and me ... and did not prevail. This is victory for all NDPs," she said.

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NDP Leader Howard Hampton said Ms. DiNovo will be a force to be reckoned with at Queen's Park.

"This was supposed to be a safe seat for the McGuinty government, but seats don't belong to parties, they belong to voters," he said.

The loss of the seat, which was vacated by Gerard Kennedy who left to run for leader of the federal Liberal Party, marks a stunning defeat for the Liberals, who won just under 58 per cent of the votes there in the 2003 election to the NDP's 16 per cent.

Last night the NDP secured 41 per cent of the vote to the Liberals' 33 per cent. Progressive Conservative candidate David Hutcheon got 17 per cent of the vote.

A few blocks away from the DiNovo party, the mood was more subdued, as Ms. Watson conceded defeat 1½ hours after the polls closed.

"There is nothing we could have done," Ms. Watson said. "There is nothing in the world I would have changed about this campaign."

Ms. Watson, who was dressed head to toe in red, was flanked on the stage by a handful of cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Greg Sorbara.

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"I personally was really looking forward to having her join this Parliament," he said. "The province would have been much better off."

The vote capped one of the province's nastiest campaigns in recent memory.

"All parties have worked very hard to make their respective cases," Mr. McGuinty said earlier yesterday when asked by reporters whether he was concerned that the Liberals' campaign tactics against Ms. DiNovo might backfire.

The Premier declined to say whether the Liberals would run the campaign differently if they had an opportunity to do it all over again.

"We ran a good campaign and I think it's time for the people to have their say now," he told reporters.

Mr. McGuinty and 11 of his cabinet ministers visited the riding in the campaign's final week. Mr. Kennedy and fellow federal Liberal leadership contender Bob Rae also turned out to campaign.

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After a quiet beginning, the campaign turned ugly when the Liberals realized with about a week left that the New Democrats had a chance of winning. Ms. Watson had entered the race campaigning on the McGuinty government's record and the billions of dollars it has pumped into education and health care. Her opponents, meanwhile, attempted to turn the race into a referendum on the government's broken promises, including imposing an annual $2.4-billion health premium after campaigning on a pledge to not raise taxes.

But Ms. Watson's campaign suddenly switched gears at the start of the week and turned its sights on Ms. DiNovo. One news release cited a series of comments gleaned from Ms. DiNovo's past sermons and articles to question her suitability for public office. In another release, the Liberals reprinted excerpts from comments she made on a range of topics, including ordaining pedophiles and axe-murderers, and the role of the Catholic Church in Africa's AIDS epidemic.

Ms. DiNovo, a former "street kid," has admitted she smuggled drugs in her youth, and the minister's radical ideas are well known in the community. She and Mr. Hutcheon accused the Liberals of running a "smear campaign" and taking her comments out of context.

The Liberal tactics had the blessing of the McGuinty government. Sandra Pupatello, Mr. Kennedy's successor as Education Minister, told reporters this week that Ms. DiNovo's comments do not reflect the views of any candidate who should be running for office.

"This was a tough riding for us from the very beginning," Mr. Sorbara said last night. "There is a strong NDP core vote in this riding. We're not able to overcome the strength of that vote."

The Liberals had coasted to victory in the 2003 election largely on the strength of Mr. Kennedy's personal popularity and his days running the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, a background that Liberal insiders say appealed to many NDP voters in the riding. Mr. Kennedy also garnered praise for his performance as education minister at Queen's Park, but Ms. Watson was apparently unable to ride the coattails of his popularity.

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The vote comes one year before the first fixed election day in Ontario's history - Oct. 4, 2007.

The Liberals retain a solid majority in the Ontario Legislature, with 70 of the 103 seats. The Conservatives hold 24 and the NDP now holds nine.

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