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Party leadership candidate supporters hang banners at the site of the convention in Toronto on Thursday January 24, 2013Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Liberals from across Ontario began gathering in Toronto Friday to choose a successor to Premier Dalton McGuinty. Delegates lined up in the hundreds at Maple Leaf Gardens, the historic hockey arena recently re-opened as a university athletic centre, to register and cast ballots in the first round of voting.

Candidates moved in and out of the hall performing soundchecks, and stopped in the foyer to chat with delegates.

The convention will open with a tribute to Mr. McGuinty Friday night. On Saturday morning, each candidate will speak, then the results of the first ballot will be announced. With no candidate close to a majority of votes, a second ballot, to be held at 12:30 p.m., is virtually guaranteed. Delegates are committed to a specific candidate in the first round only, and may switch support on later ballots. Voting will continue as long as it takes for one candidate to reach more than 50 per cent.

Kathleen Wynne registered shortly before 11 a.m., surrounded by an entourage of supporters. She tried to heighten the contrast between herself and front-runner Sandra Pupatello by reminding delegates that, unlike her rival, she holds a seat in the legislature.

"We don't have to go into a by-election, we don't have to think about going into a general election," she said after voting. "We can actually do what the people of Ontario are asking us to do, which is to work with the opposition and govern."

The Toronto MPP and former cabinet minister also reflected on the possibility of making history as the first openly gay provincial premier in the nation's history, and the first woman to hold Ontario's highest elected office.

"It's a really important moment, I believe, for the province of Ontario, and historians will look back at this. If we have a woman premier, if we have an openly gay premier, there will be a big conversation about that," she said. "But the most important conversation, the most important story people will write, will be about whether the person who is chosen has the capacity, whether this person has been chosen on her merits or his merits to govern the province and to lead the party."

Ms. Pupatello has a narrow lead over Ms. Wynne among elected delegates and ex-officios, party brass who have a vote at the convention. Gerard Kennedy is in third place, just barely ahead of Harinder Takhar and Charles Sousa. Eric Hoskins is in last place.

Mr. Sousa voted around noon, accompanied by cheering supporters and a hype-man shouting "I say Premier, you say Sousa!"

His game plan for the convention, he said, was to convince enough ex-officios and uncommitted delegates to push him past Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Takhar.

"Bring me up to third place so that we can really build momentum and look for real renewal," he said. "That's what I'm calling for."

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, one of Ms. Pupatello's highest-profile backers, said he would spend the next 24 hours campaigning for her among other candidates' delegates.

"We all have little assignments to do, nothing major, but touch base with people we know who aren't necessarily supporting Sandra, and ask them to give her consideration on later ballots," he said.

The candidates have had to walk a fine line between campaigning hard to win while not alienating one another, or dividing the party.

"I'm looking forward to sometime late tomorrow or Sunday when we're all back on the same team again," Mr. Duncan said. "These are always the most difficult things for a party to go through. In my case, I've got friends in all the camps and I consider all of the candidates to be friends."

The candidates have set up shop in the neighbourhood around Maple Leaf Gardens, renting offices and hotel rooms, where they will host parties and receptions for delegates.

Mr. Sousa even staked out a prominent location across the street from the convention, hanging his banner from the top of a nearby building. A streetcar shelter below, meanwhile, bore a large advertisement for Eric Hoskins.