Stephen Harper won a first-ballot victory Saturday to become the first leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – a win he said marks "the beginning of the end" for Paul Martin's Liberal government.

Harper won 56 per cent of the points. Former Magna International CEO Belinda Stronach was second with 35 per cent and former Ontario cabinet minister Tony Clement was last with nine per cent.

Harper had been the front-runner during the entire campaign.

In his acceptance speech, he called Clement "tough, competitive, compassionate and a tireless fighter." He said Stronach "played a significant and crucial role" in establishing the party. "Her presence in this race came at great personal sacrifice."

Harper said "the unprecedented unification of conservatives" will help the new party take on the Liberals in an election that's expected in the spring.

He said Quebecers need a political option that is "not centralization defended by the Liberal party, or the separation proposed by the Bloc Québécois."

Earlier, in a keynote speech at the Toronto convention, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said the party, formed when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged, would run a fiscally responsible government.

He also said the united conservative party would mend the Liberals' "broken relationship" with the United States. But he saved his harshest criticism for the sponsorship scandal.

"[The Liberals] actually think they own the country, that it is a commodity that can be bought and sold," he said. "You can't buy and sell Canada with our own money."

Harper predicted the Liberals will perceive his party as an even bigger threat now that it's chosen a leader.

"The tired, old, corrupt Liberal party is cornered like an angry rat," he said. "They are going to attack us like never before."