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PC candidate Ken Kirupa, centre, campaigned with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Standing in the late afternoon sun on a street of modest bungalows in the heart of Scarborough-Guildwood, Lalaine Cukjati can trace the arc of her feelings for the Ontario Liberals over the last decade.

Shortly after arriving in Canada from the Philippines in 2002, she saw then-leader Dalton McGuinty on television promising not to raise taxes, she recalls, and was deeply impressed. But spending scandals at eHealth, ORNGE and the cancellation of two gas-fired power plants have changed her mind.

"That's the reason I came to Canada: I thought we had nothing like that here," says Ms. Cukjati, a 41-year-old nursing home worker. "But I found out it's even worse than in the Philippines."

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Mr. McGuinty, of course, is gone now, replaced by Kathleen Wynne, and Ms. Cukjati is at ground zero of one of the new Premier's most crucial tests.

This corner of the city is a bellwether, swinging to all three major political parties with an uncanny predilection for supporting the winner.

It's easy to see why. The riding is a microcosm of the Toronto suburbs, a mix of concrete high-rises lined up along the major arteries and the detached brick homes of working-class families. At the many strip plazas in the area, Indian grocers jostle for space with jerk chicken joints.

More than any of the five ridings up for grabs in Thursday's by-elections, Scarborough-Guildwood is a must-win for the Liberals. Losing could spell disaster for Ms. Wynne in the next general election.

The race has also become a flashpoint for the Toronto region's great debate on transit expansion. The Tories campaigned aggressively on the promise to extend the Bloor-Danforth line rather than the light-rail project the Liberals and Toronto city council were planning.

Then, the Grits agreed to a subway and turned a government announcement on funding it into a partisan campaign event with their candidate, Mitzie Hunter.

The CEO of city-building group Civic Action, Ms. Hunter grew up one riding over, but currently doesn't live in Scarborough. Possessed of a peppy personality and a high-wattage smile, she rattles off a host of local issues – from building up the business improvement area to affordable housing -- she wants to address at Queen's Park.

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Despite holding nuanced views on transit as the head of Civic Action – supporting LRTs in some cases and subways in others – her campaign trail message is firmly on the populist subway bandwagon.

"Having a subway here is very important to the people – I'm hearing that every day, I support that, and ensuring we get that built in this community," she says.

On the doorstep, Tory candidate Ken Kirupa sticks to familiar Tory talking points about Liberal scandals.

"We're sick and tired of this," he says. "People are fed up."

A real estate agent and former banker who immigrated from Sri Lanka in 1988, he settled first in Scarborough before relocating to Vaughan, north of the city, four years ago. He says he moved back to the riding around the time he landed the Tory nomination late last year, and he criticizes his electoral rivals for living outside the riding.

That matter could be NDP candidate Adam Giambrone's biggest drawback. The former TTC Chair has the best name recognition of the three major candidates, but as a long-time downtown resident, has little connection to the riding.

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It hasn't helped that his run so far has been overshadowed by accusations he cheated to get his party's nomination. His defeated rival for the NDP nomination, union organizer Amarjeet Kaur Chhabra, alleged 12 of the people who voted at the meeting were not on a list of party members in the riding she received the previous day. Party brass maintained the group was eligible to vote.

In a sign of the riding's importance, all three party leaders have been here to campaign. On Tuesday, even Mayor Rob Ford came out, letting loose on Ms. Wynne's party in a speech at Mr. Kirupa's headquarters.

"If you say you want to go and vote Liberal, then you're basically just giving a bank robber another gun and saying 'go rob another bank,'" he said.

Later, while canvassing for the Tories, his presence appeared to have its intended effect.

"He actually managed to take the time to come here – most mayors, you don't see them often," said Arshad Razvi, 23, after meeting Mr. Ford and Mr. Kirupa. "He's a cool guy."

For others, the vote will be decided by cultural factors. Uma Nadhan, a 45-year-old factory worker, was supporting Ms. Hunter until she learned Mr. Kirupa is Tamil. She promptly pulled Ms. Hunter's sign out of her lawn and replaced it with Mr. Kirupa's.

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"We are from the same community," explained Ms. Nadhan, a Sri Lankan native. "So I will support the PCs."

Despite the opposition's determined efforts, and the string of scandals, many Liberal supporters remain unbowed.

Augustine D'Souza, 53, who works for a security company, has backed the Grits since he arrived from Goa, India, in 2002. Their appeal, he says, is their support for "a fair opportunity for citizens of different races."

"I've always voted for the Liberal Party for their ethics. Whoever stands – this person or another person – it's the party that matters," he said. "They are carrying forward the ideals of the party."

If Ms. Wynne hopes to prove herself and set her party up for the next election, she must count on there being more Mr. D'Souzas in Scarborough-Guildwood than Ms. Cukjatis.

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