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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is shown in her office at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is shown in her office at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 12, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ontario Premier Wynne begins fight for Niagara Falls, Thornhill Add to ...

Kathleen Wynne is charging headlong into the battle for two vacant provincial ridings, staking her political capital on the key tests of her year-old government’s popularity.

The Ontario Premier conducted a whirlwind tour of Niagara Falls on Friday, meeting with business leaders, speaking at a high school and stopping three times for unscripted mainstreeting with voters.

That she would take such risks – being so visible that a loss would reflect on her personally – further demonstrates the sheer importance of the Feb. 13 contests here and in Thornhill as possible preludes to a general election in the spring.

“We’re not going to stand back … we’re going to do everything we can to get these good candidates to Queen’s Park,” Ms. Wynne declared at Saint Michael Catholic High School. “I am going into every riding and we are going to fight.”

The Liberals’ full-court press includes sending in legions of party members, including several cabinet ministers, to canvass, and enlisting the star power of Justin Trudeau.

When the federal Liberal Leader walked into a grocery store deli with Ms. Wynne on Friday, lunchtime patrons leaped to their feet to have their photos taken with him.

Referring to the premier as “my friend,” he praised her “positive focus.”

His presence made an impression on Kem Chowbay, 44, whose family benefited from the liberalized immigration laws of Mr. Trudeau’s late father to come to Canada from Guyana.

“My mother has said for years that the reason we’re Canadian is because of Pierre Trudeau,” he said, sitting at the deli counter.

Mr. Chowbay, for his part, said he has voted for both the Liberals and Tories in past elections, and has not yet made up his mind which party he will back this time.

The major issue in the riding, he said, is work. With the local economy so heavily dependent on tourist-focused casinos, hotels and restaurants, many residents long for stable employment.

All three parties are banking on that issue to win over undecided voters in the tight, three-way contest.

The Progressive Conservatives, who nearly took the seat from the Liberals in 2011, have nominated former MPP Bart Maves. They are hammering the Liberals on the province’s sluggish economy.

The New Democrats are expected to give the nod to City Councillor Wayne Gates this weekend. With its industrial history and blue-collar population, the riding is natural territory for the left-wing party.

Liberal candidate Joyce Morocco, a city councillor, touted the government’s spending in the riding, including a new hospital unveiled just before the by-election call.

“You have to look at the track record that the Liberals have right now and the investment that they’ve put into our regional infrastructure,” she said.

And in a departure from her normally conciliatory tone, Ms. Wynne spent much of a news conference Friday hammering the opposition parties’ economic plans. The Tories’ proposed cuts to government spending, she claimed, would harm the economy. And she blamed the NDP government of the early 1990s for driving up unemployment.

The by-elections will come a few weeks before Ms. Wynne is expected to table her government’s second budget. If the Tories and NDP vote against it, the province will be plunged into an early election.

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