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Candidate Harinder Takhar walked over to Sandra Pupatello’s camp after being eliminated on the first ballot at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention in Toronto on Jan. 26, 2013.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Harinder Takhar threw Sandra Pupatello a lifeline when she really, really needed one.

Ms. Pupatello, who came into this weekend's Ontario Liberal leadership convention as the front-runner to become Dalton McGuinty's replacement, did not get off to a very good start on its pivotal day – or at least, not really as good as her main rival.

Kathleen Wynne significantly outperformed Ms. Pupatello during Saturday morning's candidates' speeches, confidently addressing concerns about her forcefulness as a public speaker, and directly challenging the idea that the province might not be ready for an openly gay premier. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that she trailed Ms. Pupatello by just two out of 2,084 votes on the convention's first ballot, with both candidates' support rounding to 29 per cent. And then sixth-place candidate Eric Hoskins responded to being knocked off the next ballot by making a dramatic march over to Ms. Wynne.

For a few minutes, it appeared Ms. Wynne had all the momentum. But then, when nobody was paying much attention, Mr. Takhar crossed over to Ms. Pupatello.

His decision, or at least the timing of it, was slightly peculiar. Mr. Takhar is known to have been sensitive to perceptions that he entered the race as a stalking horse for Ms. Pupatello, and to media insinuations that he was not a serious candidate; then he jumped out of the race to support her before he needed to do so, and after he had already missed his window to take his name off the second ballot.

Mr. Takhar's officials insist the decision was made entirely within their camp, and did not involve discussions with Ms. Pupatello. But there will be widespread suspicions about what might have been offered to him in order to change his mind so quickly, and just when Ms. Pupatello needed him to do so.

His support is likely to widen Ms. Pupatello's lead somewhat, since he won 11 per cent of votes on the first ballot next to Mr. Hoskins' 7 per cent. But the race remains very much either frontrunner's for the taking.

Charles Sousa, who finished narrowly behind Mr. Takhar in fifth, is said to be struggling with his decision, while third-place candidate Gerard Kennedy seems an easier fit with Ms. Wynne.

The final result could well depend, then, on whether defeated candidates are able to get most of their supporters to follow them, which is no sure thing at any delegated convention.

While his late decision could cause some confusion on the second ballot, it appears Mr. Takhar should be able to deliver extremely effectively to Ms. Pupatello. Conversely, sources say that Mr. Sousa's supporters are heavily divided on which candidate to go to, so he could have trouble carrying an overwhelming number of them to either.

For now, Mr. Sousa is being heavily courted by both camps, who are eager for what they hope will finally be a definitive momentum sway.