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Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion.

While Ontario's Progressive Conservatives try to leverage the popularity of Rob Ford in their battle to breach the traditionally Liberal fortress of Toronto, Dalton McGuinty is hoping a little of Hazel McCallion's legendary political success will rub off on him as he seeks the support of the suburbs.

A provincial election is one of the few opportunities for municipal politicians, who typically must go cap-in-hand to their higher-level counterparts for funding, to turn the tables, as potential premiers vie for the backing of popular mayors and their parties roll out city-friendly pledges.

This dynamic was evident at the Liberal campaign kickoff in Mississauga Wednesday, where Mr. McGuinty praised the "fabulous" Ms. McCallion as she sat in the front row. It was the corollary to Mr. Ford's family barbecue last week, at which Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak made a high-profile appearance.

"This is symbolic of the significance of cities that the candidates are courting the big-city mayors who, constitutionally, they lord it over," said Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University. "The election will be won or lost in the cities and surrounding suburbs."

Such calculations helped the Liberal leader win the last time around, when a perceived closeness with then-Toronto mayor David Miller – who had recently received extra powers from the province – helped deliver the city to the Liberals, Mr. Siemiatycki said.

This time, the suburbs will be key, as they were during the federal election last spring. What's more, Ms. McCallion has taken a leading role pushing Queen's Park for social-services funding. And she's not the only one ramping up the pressure.

Brampton Mayor Sue Fennell says she has met with both Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Hudak to make it clear the support of her city's voters depends on their backing for a new hospital and a university campus.

"These are the ballot questions in the election. The province of Ontario is responsible for health care, the province of Ontario is responsible for education and particularly higher education," she said. "Our city will no longer be taken for granted."

Ms. Fennell said she most likely would not back a particular party, but left the door open to changing her mind if one commits to funding the projects at the top of her list.

Ms. McCallion and Mr. Ford have similarly withheld their endorsements. On Wednesday, Ms. McCallion would only say that she supports Mr. McGuinty's plan to continue uploading social spending that the previous Tory government handed off to the cities.

Mr. McGuinty's government has been slowly assuming costs for public health, ambulance service and welfare. The Liberals agreed in 2008 to take on $1.5-billion by 2018. To date, the province has assumed $947-million of those costs..

"We've gone on a different track here," Mr. McGuinty said of the plan. "We set out to build a great relationship built on respect and a determination to understand each other."

In addition, the party has attempted to appeal to suburban voters by offering improved GO transit service and refunds for customers inconvenienced by late trains.

Randall Denley, Tory candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean, had a different take on municipal finance, arguing that the province could not afford continued uploading and that cities would do better to get their own fiscal houses in order.

"The municipalities are disappointed because they've been given free money, essentially, from the provincial government," he said, noting he thinks it's unlikely Mr. McGuinty's full uploading commitment can be honoured. "Now reality has hit, and they're not very happy."

His boss, Mr. Hudak, pledged to take pressure off city budgets by reigning in provincial arbitrators who have been known to award public-sector employees raises above the rate of inflation.

"We need to fix the broken arbitration system that sees arbitrators thumb their nose at taxpayers," he said Wednesday morning.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath centred her pitch to cities on transportation, with a promise to pay half the operating subsidy for public transit. Such an arrangement used to exist between Queen's Park and the TTC, but expired in 1998.

With reports from Steve Ladurantaye, Anna Mehler Paperny and Adam Radwanski