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Sandra Pupatello, candidate for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party takes part in a debate at a Canadian Club luncheon moderated by Steve Paikin on Dec. 6, 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Sandra Pupatello loves reminding people she's from Windsor as she campaigns for the Ontario Liberal leadership, a line she uses so often it elicits exaggerated eye rolls from her leadership rivals, all of whom are from the Toronto area.

Ms. Pupatello feels her roots outside the centre of the province's political universe are an important factor if the Liberals hope to regain the seats they lost in rural and small town Ontario in 2011, when they were reduced to a minority government.

"Even at our lowest ebb as a party and a government, we're still winning the Toronto seats ... and that fact alone is why so many of my colleagues called and asked me to get into this race, because we have to win outside of Toronto," Ms. Pupatello said in a recent interview.

"Ultimately I believe that we can win those seats back, where you have to get the NDP to vote for you and you have to get red Tories to vote for you, and I did that for a living for 16 years."

The former Windsor-West MPP was Dalton McGuinty's attack dog and deputy leader during the Liberals' years in opposition, and was promoted to cabinet when they were elected in 2003, serving as minister of social services, education and – in their second term – economic development and trade.

"I'm the jobs guy, and people in my party know me best in that role because I was there the longest ... and it also happens to be what the number one issue is across this province," said Ms. Ms. Pupatello.

"Totally non-political people were saying I had to do this, they were calling from all of the sectors where I had worked with them as a minister."

Ms. Pupatello is seen as being from the centre-right side of the Liberal party, similar to Mr. McGuinty, especially when compared with her closest rival, former education minister Kathleen Wynne, who is considered to be more from the centre-left of the party.

The two women are far and away the front runners heading into the leadership convention Jan. 25-27 in Toronto.

The outspoken Ms. Pupatello, who's enthusiastic energy contrasts with Mr. McGuinty's more sedate, almost laid back approach, said she never intended to return to politics after deciding not to run again in 2011 and taking a job with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Toronto.

She was lured back after Mr. McGuinty's surprise resignation last October, which came just hours before public hearings were to begin into the government's decisions to cancel two gas plants in Liberal-held ridings west of Toronto, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $230-million.

The Liberals' first year as a minority government was also rocked by anger in rural areas over industrial wind turbines and cancelling the slots programs at race tracks, a police probe into the Ornge air ambulance service and a bitter fight with teachers over wage freeze legislation.

"The reason that I'm in is exactly because of this year, and I think that really is the difference perhaps between me and my colleagues, because I wasn't in the house, because I understand it's a really difficult time for my party and for our government," said Ms. Pupatello.

"I want to bring the experience that I've had being on the outside for the past year and a half, and seeing the government with a different set of eyes."

Ms. Pupatello, 50, has the most committed first-ballot delegate support and the most endorsements from her former caucus and cabinet colleagues, but said she knows she won't be "the belle of the ball" if she becomes premier.

"Inside the party, everywhere we go, we are getting a very warm reception, which is how you know it's really unlike the general public right now," she said.

"We've got a lot of making up to do on a number of fronts before the public wants to trust us with their taxpayers' money."

Ms. Pupatello, who was first elected in 1995, does not have a seat in the legislature, but said she will get one in a byelection – noting Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has offered to give up his Windsor-Tecumseh riding if she wins the leadership – instead of calling or forcing a general election this year.

"What I want to do right away is call on (Conservative Leader) Tim Hudak and (NDP Leader) Andrea Horwath to come and talk to me about jobs and the economy, and I think that's what people want right away," she said.

"In my view we have to behave like a minority government, which means including some of their thoughts around jobs and the economy."

Ms. Pupatello, who speaks French and Italian in addition to English, is married to Jim Bennett, a Liberal Member of the House of Assembly in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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