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Either Sandra Pupatello exceeded her own expectations, or she did a good job of lowering everyone else's.

The Ontario Liberal leadership candidate who came into the weekend saying she would be happy to place second in preliminary voting instead emerged with the lead, claiming 27 per cent of the more than 1,800 delegates elected to attend their party's convention later this month. That puts her two percentage points above Kathleen Wynne, who conversely raised expectations last week by enticing erstwhile candidate Glen Murray to drop out of the race and endorse her.

The effect, particularly given her strong support among the 400-plus party elites who will automatically be granted delegate status, is to establish Ms. Pupatello as the front-runner in the race to replace Premier Dalton McGuinty. How much that means depends largely on the judgment of a clump of candidates, running well behind her and Ms. Wynne, who seem destined to be also-rans.

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Gerard Kennedy, in third with 14 per cent of delegates, probably does not have the broad appeal that could make him a real contender on the convention floor. The same is even more true of Harinder Takhar, despite a head-turning performance this weekend which left him narrowly trailing Mr. Kennedy with 13 per cent. Meanwhile, disappointing returns have made the prospects extremely dim for Charles Sousa (11 per cent) and non-existent for Eric Hoskins (6 per cent).

Delegated conventions are notoriously unpredictable affairs, so it can't be completely ruled out that those lower-ranking candidates will form alliances to vault one of them into contention. But their role will much likelier be in figuring out which of the two front-runners they want to help reach a majority on a second, third or fourth ballot.

That could well involve the sort of horse-trading (of potential cabinet positions, for instance) that gives leadership contests a bad name.

But it will also force the would-be queen-makers – and their supporters, who are not obliged to follow their candidates across the floor – to consider just what it is they're looking for in Dalton McGuinty's successor.

On paper, Ms. Pupatello and Ms. Wynne are not all that different from each other. Vying to be Ontario's first female premier, both have extensive cabinet histories that include stints as education minister. And as articulated during the leadership campaign, their policy differences are subtle, with neither promising a major break from the government's current path.

In practice, though, their pitches to fellow Liberals are very different. Ms. Wynne is seen as being on the party's centre-left; Ms. Pupatello, who has made much of being the only candidate from outside the Greater Toronto Area, is more to the centre-right. Ms. Wynne has subtly hinted at wanting to shake up the party behind the scenes; Ms. Pupatello is perceived as more of an establishment candidate.

Perhaps most important, in the current political context, is how they envision the job they're seeking. Ms. Wynne gives the appearance of someone more interested in governing than campaigning, which could reduce the chance of a spring election. Ms. Pupatello, brasher and more colourful, presents herself as a fighter hungry to lead the Liberals into battle.

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If Ms. Wynne had come out of this weekend with a big lead, that last distinction would have been muddled in a way that might have made it a cakewalk for her the rest of the way. In addition to presenting herself as more ready to be premier, she would have been able to argue that she had proved herself the better campaigner. Ms. Pupatello would have risked losing even some of her existing supporters; picking up new ones would have been a big challenge.

Instead, Ms. Pupatello has regained some of the swagger she had coming out of the gate back in November. Still, the momentum could shift many times before the Liberals choose their new leader a dozen days from now. Rather than being anywhere close to decided, the governing party's choice has just been thrown into sharper relief.

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