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Provincial NDP candidate Wayne Gates visits the La Farina Italian Bakery in Niagara Falls, Ont. on Jan. 31, 2014 ahead of a by-election on Feb. 13.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

All three parties are looking for a sign from voters in two Ontario by-elections as they jockey for position ahead of a general election widely expected in the spring.

The stakes in the Thursday votes are high for both Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, who would face a serious setback if she cannot win at least one of the seats, and for Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who is trying to put to rest nagging doubts about his electability. A win for Andrea Horwath's New Democrats, meanwhile, could give the left-wing party the confidence to bring down the government in the coming weeks and force a snap election.

With Forum Research polls showing the Liberals trailing in both ridings – affluent Thornhill and working-class Niagara Falls – Ms. Wynne played down expectations Wednesday.

"By-elections are their own unique creatures," she said. "People can vote in these by-elections with impunity. They know that on Friday morning, I'm going to be the Premier, we're going to be in a minority parliament and we're going to continue to implement our plan."

But losses would be a setback for the Grits, who already dropped three ridings in summer by-elections and could use some good news from voters before a general vote.

Thornhill, in particular, is an important barometer, sitting in the middle of the vote-rich Toronto suburbs that typically decide elections. Ms. Wynne has personally campaigned in the seat several times, but Forum this week gave Tory candidate Gila Martow an 11-point edge over Liberal Sandra Yeung Racco, with New Democrat Cindy Hackelberg a distant third.

In Niagara Falls, the PCs have launched an all-out attack on New Democrat Wayne Gates in a last-ditch effort to grab the seat. A Tory website dubbed "Radical Wayne" includes a video of Mr. Gates, a leader in the country's auto-workers union, exhorting union members to "take over the NDP," as well as excerpts of an interview he once gave to a communist newspaper.

"Ontario's union elites like what they are getting right now from the NDP and the Liberals, and they want to put Wayne Gates at Queen's Park to ensure that it continues," PC MPP Monte McNaughton said to reporters this week.

The NDP shrugged off the attack.

"What we've got is the Tories doing what they've done for the last two years: they're focusing on the negative," House Leader Gilles Bisson said. "They're standing on the sidelines, they're swiping at people, they're not really proposing anything positive."

New Democrats have focused all their resources on Niagara, where Forum shows Mr. Gates with a lead over PC Bart Maves. Liberal Joyce Morocco is far behind. Mr. Gates's campaign team includes nearly everyone from the NDP caucus and an army of staffers. Leader Andrea Horwath spent Wednesday door-knocking in the riding, the party said.

The by-election results won't tip the balance of power in the legislature. But the Liberals, who control only a minority of seats, must get the co-operation of at least one other party to pass a budget this spring and avoid an early vote. The Tories are already gunning for an election, while the NDP has not said what it will do.

While Ms. Wynne repeatedly said the results of the by-elections will not change her hefty legislative agenda or her plans for a spring budget, she did briefly admit the effect the votes could have.

"Are you asking me if I don't like losing?" she said when asked if dropping the seats would hurt. "I love winning."

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