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Prime Minister Stephen Harper sketches out a play while coaching with Don Cherry during Hockey Night in Barrie, a fundraiser for the local hospital, on Aug. 12, 2010.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Julian Fantino pulled in a celebrity endorsement from Don Cherry this weekend amid charges from the Liberals that the star Conservative candidate is purposely avoiding the public spotlight.

Welcome to the last week of the by-election races, where the stakes are high and the Liberals - especially - have much to lose in the suburban Toronto-area riding of Vaughan.

"There are not enough words to describe how much respect I have for Julian Fantino," the bombastic and sartorially outlandish Hockey Night in Canada commentator writes.. "He is honest, brave and always there for the ordinary guy. A class act and someone who will never let you down. He tells it like it is."

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There is more fawning analysis from Mr. Cherry, a former coach - but you get the idea. The endorsement was provided to The Globe by the Conservative Party.

Mr. Fantino, the former Toronto police chief and Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, is running against Grit contender Tony Genco. The suburban Toronto-area riding was held by Liberal veteran Maurizio Bevilacqua for 22 years.

It would be a big blow to Michael Ignatieff's fortunes if the Tories take it. It could easily happen, since Mr. Fantino is well-known and makes the perfect candidate for Stephen Harper's law-and-order agenda. It is expected Mr. Fantino will be a shoo-in for cabinet if he wins next Monday.

Of the two other by-elections in the mix, both in Manitoba, the Winnipeg North race is the most competitive. It has been a long-time NDP riding but the Liberals are running a strong candidate.

The Conservatives, however, are in the mix. Last week, the Tories alleged Mr. Ignatieff played the race card in comments he made about Tory candidate Julie Javier. A newspaper report had said Mr. Ignatieff alleged that Ms. Javier was only running to steal votes from his Liberal candidate in the Filipino community. The report was incorrect and the newspaper apologized - but the Tories are ignoring the apology and are still pursuing the anti-Ignatieff angle.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are firing salvos of their own in the spin wars. In a statement to be released later Monday morning, Grit strategists assert that Mr. Fantino and Ms. Javier are "under the thumb of the Harper PMO, muzzled just like Conservative ministers and MPs."

"Just like when Harper shut down Parliament to avoid tough questions, these Conservative candidates are shutting down local democracy by refusing to be publicly accountable," the Liberals say. "This type of 'peek-a-boo' politics is straight out of the Harper playbook where scripted, invite-only photo-ops keep candidates safely out of reach of real people with real questions."

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The Liberals have accused Mr. Fantino of refusing to take part in a public, all-candidates debate. They say Ms. Javier has also refused an invitation by their candidate, Kevin Lamoureux, to debate. The Tories counter, however, that Mr. Fantino is to appear in a Rogers television debate later this week.

Despite all of the effort by the parties, EKOS pollster Frank Graves says he has a "skeptical view" of the importance of by-elections.

"I recognize that they are important for the confidence and morale of the parties," he said. "A better than expected result can be a real boost to the party faithful and obviously a more disappointing result can take the wind out of the sails of those parties which falter."

Given all of that, however, Mr. Graves noted that by-elections have "little bearing on the 'real' national election. The stakes are very different. One can send a message without having to worry about the longer term consequences to the national stage."

They're fun to watch, he added, but not necessarily a harbinger for general elections.

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