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Ontario Liberal leadership candidates Sandra Pupatello, left, and Kathleen Wynne share a laugh following a forum at the Canadian Club of Toronto, Dec. 6, 2012.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Seven men and women are vying to become the next leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and the province's new premier. Three of them, however, command more support from within the Liberal caucus and the wider party family than the rest.

These three are Sandra Pupatello, Kathleen Wynne and Gerard Kennedy, who between them have garnered almost 90 per cent of the caucus endorsements that had been given by the end of last week. Looking deeper into the roster of endorsements each leadership candidate has compiled shows that the three frontrunners have the lion's share of experience on offer as well.

Some 2,500 delegates will be choosing the next leader of the Liberals, with 16 delegates attending the convention from each of the province's 107 ridings. Another 800 ex-officio delegates from the party will cast their ballots as well. This makes endorsements even more important than in a one-member-one-vote selection process. (Read our infographic)

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Pupatello cleaning up

Ms. Pupatello stands head and shoulders above the rest. She has the support of 17 caucus members, including Finance Minister Dwight Duncan and other cabinet ministers such as Bob Chiarelli, Brad Duguid, Mike Colle, and Michael Gravelle. Ms. Pupatello also has the support of three former MPPs. The regional distribution of her support is impressive: seven of her caucus supporters hail from ridings in and around Toronto, three from Ottawa, three from Northern Ontario, three from Southwestern Ontario, and one from Eastern Ontario.

Her supporters also have more total experience than her rivals. Including former MPPs, Ms. Pupatello has a combined 180 years of experience in the Ontario legislature in her camp and 60 election wins. The average time spent in the legislature per endorsement, however, is below her main rivals at nine years.

Wynne not far behind

Nipping at her heels is Ms. Wynne, who has the support of nine caucus members and one former MPP. Her supporters also include two former MPs and a former senator. Ms. Wynne had to give up her seat in cabinet to run for the leadership, but does have the support of Health Minister Deb Matthews, originally touted as one of the potential frontrunners to replace Dalton McGuinty before she ruled herself out. Ms. Wynne also has good regional distribution, with supporters from Southwestern and Eastern Ontario and in and around Toronto.

She has a total of 96 years of experience in the legislature among her endorsers, an average of 9.6 years per individual. She also has 31 election wins between them, but on both measures she stands at about half the numbers that Ms. Pupatello puts on the board.

Kennedy: fewer supporters, but more experienced

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Gerard Kennedy comes up third with the support of three caucus members and three former MPPs, including Joseph Cordiano and George Smitherman. His supporters are mostly from the Golden Horseshoe, however.

But what Mr. Kennedy lacks in numbers he makes up in experience. His supporters have a combined 71 years experience in the legislature, an average of 11.8 per endorser. They also have 21 election wins together, putting him just behind Ms. Wynne in both categories.

How they compare to each other

All three of them bring their own experience to the table.

Ms. Wynne is the only sitting MPP of the three, and has been in office since 2003. Ms. Pupatello did not run in the 2011 election, but was first elected in 1995 and held the cabinet portfolio of education, among others.

Mr. Kennedy was an MPP from 1996 to 2006, also ran the education ministry, and sat as an MP from 2008 to 2011. Of the three, he is the only one with leadership campaign experience: he ran in the 1996 race and in the federal Liberal race of 2006.

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Second tier: behind the frontrunners

The second tier of candidates behind these three is led by Eric Hoskins, who has the support of two members of caucus (both from the GTA) and two former MPPs, along with two former party presidents and John Turner, former leader of the federal Liberal Party and briefly prime minister. Mr. Hoskins has a combined total of 20 years and eight election wins among his supporters, and was first elected to the legislature in a 2009 by-election.

Placing fourth may not be such a bad thing for Mr. Hoskins. After all, Mr. McGuinty finished fourth on the first ballot during the 1996 convention.

That may suggest that the race is anybody's to win no matter who is the frontrunner, but the 1996 result might have been more of an exception rather than the rule. Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak in 2009, John Tory in 2004, Ernie Eves in 2002 and Howard Hampton in 1996 all led on the first ballot in their respective leadership races, never relinquishing that lead on subsequent ballots. And Mr. Hudak commanded the most caucus support in the PC leadership race that he won.

Charles Sousa has the support of two caucus members with a combined experience of 10 years in the legislature and four election wins, not including Mr. Sousa's own five years in the legislature. Glen Murray had no caucus support as of the end of last week, but does have the support of former health minister Elinor Caplan. Mr. Hoskins, Mr. Sousa, and Mr. Murray all had to give up cabinet seats to run for the leadership. Harinder Takhar had to as well, but as of Friday had no current or former MPP endorsements to his name.

There is still plenty of campaigning to go before the race comes to an end on Jan. 26, 2013. Nothing rules out the possibility that one of the other candidates will push themselves out of the second tier between now and the convention, or even on the convention floor itself. But based on who has already given their endorsement, the race looks close between Sandra Pupatello, Kathleen Wynne, and Gerard Kennedy.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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