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Tories capture Liberal stronghold in federal byelection

OTTAWA -- The Conservatives have narrowly captured the riding of Vaughan from the Liberals, tightening their hold on the ridings around Toronto that could decide the next federal election.

Former Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino won a slim victory Monday, ending the Liberals' 22-year reign in the north Toronto suburb.

When Fantino arrived at a banquet hall where his supporters had gathered, the crowd had thinned considerably, but loudly cheered and many shook his hand. "Today Vaughan families elected a man with real-life experience, with family values, with a lifetime of hard work and strong commitment to community," Fantino said.

But even as their Toronto bastion appeared under siege, the Liberals showed unexpected signs of new life in the West, scoring a surprising upset over the NDP in Winnipeg North. The Tories easily hung on to another Manitoba riding, Dauphin—Swan River—Marquette.

The results were grim news for Jack Layton and his NDP. They were never in the race in Vaughan and surrendered Winnipeg North to the Liberals' Kevin Lamoureux after owning the riding for 13 years.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the closer-than-expected results demonstrate the next election will be a two-horse race between the Tories and Liberals. "These byelections show the clearest sign yet that in the battle to defeat the Harper Conservatives, there is only one alternative party that can deliver change — the Liberal Party of Canada," Ignatieff said in a written statement.

Voter turnout was dismal, ranging from a low of 26 per cent in Dauphin to a high of 31 per cent in Vaughan. The Vaughan outcome has the greatest potential for shaking up the federal political scene.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper must break the Liberal stranglehold on Toronto to have any hope of snagging his sought-after majority. Winning in Vaughan takes him a step closer to that goal. And it gives the Conservatives an all-important sense of momentum as they prepare for a possible national election after the next budget in February or March.

"It was a very steep hill to climb, being such a safe, traditional Liberal seat," said Conservative party spokesman Fred DeLorey. He noted that governing parties typically don't win byelections and said Monday's results demonstrate that "Canadian approve of the job the Harper government is doing on managing the economy and getting tough on crime."

Conservatives had been privately predicting that a victory in Vaughan would sap Liberal morale and destabilize Ignatieff's already wobbly leadership. Undoubtedly the Tory steal will increase the anxiety level of a number of Toronto Liberal MPs who hung on by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2008. Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe, Ruby Dhalla, Paul Szabo, Andrew Kania, Rob Oliphant and Mark Holland are among the Liberals considered vulnerable.

However, the fact that Liberal contender Tony Genco put up a spirited fight in Vaughan and lost by only about three percentage points — combined with the surprise win in Winnipeg — should help soften the blow for Ignatieff. "We managed to take what was supposed to be a coronation for Mr. Harper's hand-picked candidate and turn it into a very tight race," said deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale.

Goodale said the results show what the oft-fractious Liberals can accomplish when they pull together. Party organizers and MPs poured into both Vaughan and Winnipeg North and Ignatieff himself actively and repeatedly campaigned.

Liberal strategists argue that Vaughan doesn't necessarily portend major Tory inroads into fortress Toronto. They maintain Vaughan presented the Conservatives with almost ideal conditions for a steal — conditions that won't apply in other ridings during a national campaign.

The Tories had already knocked off three of seven adjacent ridings and had steadily closed the gap with the Liberals in Vaughan over the past several elections. With Liberal veteran Maurizio Bevilacqua gone to take the mayor's chair in Vaughan, the riding was ripe for the picking.

Fantino's candidacy sealed the deal. Harper personally turned up in Vaughan to showcase his prize catch, who enjoyed unusually high name-recognition and heavy support in the riding's large Italian community.

"I believe in our government, I believe in our ideas and vision for a stronger Canada. I believe in me and reject the fearmongering and risky Michael Ignatieff coalition," Fantino said after his victory.

The nasty campaign that ensued took some of the shine off Fantino, who is touted as prime cabinet material. Liberals hammered away at Fantino's alleged "peekaboo" campaign and drew attention to past controversies during his time as Ontario Provincial Police commissioner.

Liberals ran a star candidate of their own in Winnipeg North. Lamoureux was a former provincial MLA and he snatched away the riding by edging past New Democrat Kevin Chief by about 800 votes.

Lamoureux's victory, with 46 per cent of the vote to the NDP's 41, was particularly stunning considering the Liberals' dismal showing in the riding during the 2008 election. Then, they ran a distant third with a meagre nine per cent of the vote, while the NDP's Judy Wasylycia-Leis romped to victory with a whopping 62 per cent. The only bright spot for the NDP was an 10-point improvement in popular vote in the other Manitoba riding. In Vaughan, the party scored just over two per cent. NDP national director Brad Lavigne said results show that high-profile candidates can win byelections. But that won't necessarily carry as much weight in a national campaign.

"Local personalities outweighed national issues in these byelections. The good news for us is that these are often temporary conditions," Lavigne said. As expected, Robert Sopuck easily held onto Dauphin—Swan River—Marquette for the Tories, who've reigned in the riding for 13 years. He won with about 57 per cent of the vote, compared to 26 per cent for the NDP and 10 per cent for the Liberals.

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