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Socialism as we know it would be finished in Toronto and even Ontario had a giant sinkhole opened up and swallowed the Fox and Fiddle pub on the Danforth on Thursday evening. But it didn't. Instead, the local New Democratic Party -- including federal leader Jack Layton and Ontario leader Howard Hampton, along with much of the latter's legislative caucus -- survived for another day, making a big, happy noise as their latest candidate, Peter Tabuns, slid to victory past popular Liberal Ben Chin in the provincial by-election in Toronto-Danforth.

But there were more than a few nervous Nellies among them as the results began to trickle in, showing Mr. Tabuns barely leading Mr. Chin, the votes split almost equally between them. And nothing changed as the hour wore on. By the time Mr. Tabuns gave his victory speech, following both Mr. Layton and Mr. Hampton to the microphone, he was ahead by less than 2,000 votes -- one-third of the margin established by former NDP MPP Marilyn Churley in the last general election.

Mr. Tabuns, echoing the NDP royalty surrounding him, interpreted the result as meaning that "the people in this riding reject Dalton McGuinty and his policies." Anger with the premier is "palpable," he said later, predicting that the Liberals "will not do well in this riding" in next year's general election.

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Not surprisingly, Mr. Chin had a different interpretation, calling his loss "the first step to victory, which we will achieve in 2007."

Of the two, the loser was more credible. Although he only managed to increase his party's share of the popular vote by a few points at the end of the night, the likable broadcaster accomplished more than enough to justify another run next year.

All the political logic suggested Mr. Chin would be demolished. An untried rookie running in a by-election for the governing party -- one that had never elected a candidate in the riding in the most auspicious circumstances -- he was burdened further by his party's locally unpopular decision to build a new generating station in the riding.

But instead of being stomped, he picked up votes. The Liberals' biggest fear in the closing days of the campaign was a perception that the vigorous Chin campaign was an attempt to crush the socialists once and for all.

It was exactly that, of course, and in other circumstances -- minus the millstone of the Portlands Energy Centre -- it might have worked. In the end, Mr. Tabuns probably did pick up more than a few sympathy votes.

In any case, the results hardly support Mr. Tabuns' prediction that the Liberals are "going to have trouble in this city" in the next election. If so, it won't be because of a resurgent NDP. Just as it was forced to do this week in Toronto-Danforth, the party will likely be struggling for its existence in a year's time.

The good news for the NDP -- apart from not losing one if its measly eight seats in the legislature -- is that it will be able to pour just as many resources into the riding next year as it did this year. If he decides to run again, Mr. Chin will be much more lonely than he was in his first outing, with cabinet ministers falling all about him.

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At Thursday's victory party, Mr. Hampton accused the Liberals of going so far to win the seat that they "threw a budget" into the by-election, a first in his experience.

In retrospect, Mr. Chin's biggest mistake was trying to defend the Portlands Energy Centre. No politician should ever ask his own constituents to accept such a big LULU (locally unwanted land use), even if it is good policy -- and PEC isn't. He would have been smarter to run against it, pointing out that it wouldn't be there if the riding had elected a Liberal MPP in the last election.

But neither Mr. Tabuns nor his party are going to let go of the issue. In fact, the new MPP sees progressive energy policy as a key to the party's revival. "What they've done with the portlands they're planning to do around the province with nuclear energy," he said last Thursday before the polls closed, jogging through Playter Estates in a last-minute effort to pull his vote. "I think the portlands was symptomatic of an arrogance on the part of McGuinty, an ignoring of Toronto, a not listening."

The result, he added, is "a huge difference between us and them."

But the difference became noticeably less huge a few hours later, after the first polls began reporting their ambiguous results.

jbarber@globeandmail.com

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