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Glen MurraFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The race to succeed Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty – and lead a minority Liberal government into a difficult election as early as next spring – is heating up as one cabinet minister became the first to announce his leadership bid, another popular candidate is expected to do so Monday and at least five others are gauging their support.

Even as the government faces defeat in the next election, Glen Murray stepped down from his cabinet post and into the leadership fray Sunday. His challengers will likely include several current and former cabinet colleagues.

Kathleen Wynne resigned last week from her dual ministries of municipal and aboriginal affairs and will formally launch her campaign on Monday. She could be joined by Health Minister Deb Matthews, Children and Youth Services Minister Eric Hoskins and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Charles Sousa, all of whom are considering bids, along with former cabinet ministers Sandra Pupatello and Gerard Kennedy.

Opposition parties are expected to trigger an election soon after a new leader is elected in January. The Liberal government faces its toughest fight: The party has fallen out of favour with some of its traditional supporters in the public sector over a protracted fight with teachers and doctors, and it is embroiled in scandals over the province's air-ambulance service and two cancelled power plants.

At the same time, a key priority for the Liberals is strengthening the party's relationship with the north and rural Ontario – an area where Mr. Murray could have an advantage over his leadership rivals. He is a contender who straddles two worlds: as MPP in the urban riding of Toronto Centre and, as a former mayor of Winnipeg, one who has a strong appreciation of northern and rural Ontario –  areas the Liberals are accused of neglecting.

"I think it's great that Glen has experience in the north," said Liberal backbencher Michael Coteau. "It's an important factor to be taken into account in this race."

Mr. Murray outlined five policies that centre on tax cuts for the middle class and a "no-money-down" tuition program for students. He insisted Sunday that his campaign is not about leaning to the political left or right, but rather continuing the track of a progressive, centrist party.

"What I'm proposing is a smarter government that will restructure the way that we spend money, to spend it smarter so there are better outcomes for Ontarians," he told reporters after launching his campaign.

Not many of Mr. Murray's Queen's Park colleagues attended the launch at Maple Leaf Gardens. Mr. Murray, who until this weekend served as minister of training, colleges and universities, said it was not an indication of lack of support among his colleagues in caucus, adding that he had not spoken to many of them yet about his plan to run.

He has won the support of former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who was there on Sunday. Former cabinet minister George Smitherman was also there. While he did not formally endorse Mr. Murray's leadership, he said it is good he's in the race.

"What I think he brings to the race is freedom and liberation," he said. "I think he will be more courageous in expressing ideas."

Mr. Murray, an openly gay politician, is known around Queen's Park for not exactly being reticent to express his ideas. He once accused, on Twitter, Toronto's newly elected Mayor Rob Ford, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of bigotry. He apologized for the tweet.

Opposition members balked at his platform. "Ontario families want to see a government that is focused on the economy and reining in spending, but they won't get that with Glen Murray," Progressive Conservative MPP Rob Leone said in a statement.

"The party that hiked tuition and brought us the HST won't have a lot of credibility promising help for students and the middle class," added NDP MPP Gilles Bisson in a statement.

Mr. Murray will compete against more left-leaning contenders such as Ms. Wynne, and centre-right candidates such as Ms. Pupatello. "I'm still working towards it, and I'm not hitting any barriers yet," Ms. Pupatello said on Sunday about her intention to run. The Liberal Party will choose a new leader on the weekend of Jan. 25. Mr. McGuinty, who is retiring from politics after 16 years as Liberal Leader and nine as Premier, leaves behind a province saddled with a $14.4-billion deficit. His departure comes amid labour unrest with teachers and doctors over the government's wage-freeze policy – the two sectors where Mr. McGuinty staked his government's reputation.

Some high-profile members in Mr. McGuinty's caucus have already abandoned the idea of replacing him. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, Energy Minister Chris Bentley and Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid have all decided to stay out of the race.

With a report from The Canadian Press