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By-election candidate Tony Genco gets a boost from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at a rally in Vaughan, Ont., on Nov. 4, 2010.Kevin Van Paassen

This weekend, the Liberal volunteer who makes the most telephone calls to identify the vote in the upcoming by-elections will win a pair of premium hockey tickets to next Wednesday's Ottawa Senators match against Dallas.

Next week's winner receives a $150 gift certificate to Hy's Steakhouse, the political hangout in Ottawa.

Fabulous prizes aside, replacing coffee and doughnuts with steaks and martinis is not the usual way political parties encourage political engagement.

A veteran Liberal MP calls it "desperate" and worries about morale and motivation in the party; a senior Ignatieff official says it's about "engaging the Liberal team to lend a hand wherever they can."

Whatever it is, the Grits are upping their game. Much is at stake in the three Nov. 29 by-elections - and the higher the stakes, the nastier the contest.

Some of that nastiness played out in the House of Commons this week.

"I think the temperature is a little higher than for the average by-election," Ontario Liberal MP John McCallum says.

Two of the by-elections are in Manitoba; the third is in Vaughan, Ont., where Mr. McCallum has been helping out Liberal candidate Tony Genco.

Vaughan, however, poses the biggest problem for Mr. Ignatieff, who has been in the riding several times now.

Some observers are wondering if it is Mr. Ignatieff's Outremont - a reference to the one-time Liberal bastion in Montreal, which the party under Stéphane Dion's leadership famously lost to the NDP in a by-election. The loss played a role in Mr. Dion's demise.

Like Outremont, Vaughan has been a Liberal stronghold. But Mr. Genco is up against a star Conservative candidate, Julian Fantino, former Toronto police chief and former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner.

Winnipeg North, meanwhile, is another possibility for the Liberals, where they are battling the NDP, who have held the riding since 1997.

The other race is in the Manitoba riding of Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, which is expected to stay Conservative.

"I think [by-election victories]may have a certain effect on the momentum that the parties have, the Conservatives and the Liberals are pretty close together," says Mr. McCallum, referring to the polls that consistently show the two parties tied. "Whoever does better might get some momentum going forward and who knows when the next election will be?"

Perhaps that explains the nasty behaviour in the Commons this week when Manitoba Conservative MPs - seizing upon a negative newspaper report - accused Mr. Ignatieff of playing the race card in the Winnipeg North by-election.

"Recently in Winnipeg, the leader of the Liberal Party made insulting and offensive comments that were supported by his Liberal candidate, Kevin Lamoureux," asserted Winnipeg Tory MP Joy Smith. "The Liberal leader insinuated that Julie Javier, a Filipino Canadian with an impressive professional and community background, is only running so she could steal votes from the Liberal candidate in the Filipino community because of her heritage."

One problem. The story in the Winnipeg Free Press, which inspired the Tory attack, was wrong. The newspaper apologized this week.

The Tories did not.

"He and his staff can try to spin this that he never meant to say it," Ms. Smith said later. "But there is no doubt he was insinuating that we were playing a game by fielding a particular candidate to steal votes from the Liberals."

And they were still at it during Question Period Friday. This time it was Shelly Glover, another Manitoba Tory, criticizing Mr. Ignatieff.

In the Vaughan race, meanwhile, the Liberals are accusing the Tories of running a peek-a-boo campaign, keeping Mr. Fantino under wraps and avoiding debate of the issues.

"Big, tough he-man has to hide from the public. He's already acting like Harper," says a senior Ignatieff official.

But the Tories said Friday that Mr. Fantino will participate in a television debate to be broadcast next Tuesday. He is skipping another one because of a memorial mass for his wife's family.

As for predictions: "Cautiously bullish," says Mr. McCallum about Liberal fortunes. "We have to work hard to get the vote out."

Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey typically played down expectations, noting "governing parties generally do not win by-elections [although the Tories have done well in previous by-elections] official opposition parties do."

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