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Stephen McNeil won a narrow victory in the race for the Nova Scotia Liberal leadership, edging out fellow legislature member Diana Whalen by 68 votes. ((CBC))

Stephen McNeil won the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal party on the second ballot on Saturday, beating back a strong challenge from Diana Whalen.

Bothare members of the provincial legislature —Whalen represents Halifax-Clayton Park and McNeil represents Annapolis —where the Liberals hold just nineseats, and haven't held power since 1999.

McNeil had the lead after the first ballot, butthen two candidateswho dropped out of the race threw their support to Whalen.

Both candidates had said the race was then wide open.

Butthe backing of the two candidateswasn't enough for Whalen, and McNeil wonbya vote of 718-650.

Whalen welcomed the new leader, telling cheering delegates: "I want to be the first to say that we must make this a unanimous decision for all Liberals."

The Progressive Conservatives have 23 seats, the NDP 19, one is vacant and an Independent Progressive Conservative holds one.

But McNeil promised he would hold the Tories to account.

"As your leader, I am committed to making sure that every time this government turns its back on the people of Nova Scotia, they will hear me roar."

Promises grassroots relationship

In the campaign, McNeil said he would listen to the Liberal grassroots, and a Liberal government would focus on improving tourism.

McNeil's lead appeared to erode after the first ballot when Colchester Mayor Mike Smith and Halifax lawyer Kenzie MacKinnon both backed Whalen.

MacKinnon wasdropped from the race after finishing last on the first ballot. The two men had won a total of more than 400 votes between them.

Smith, who could have remained in the race, said he wanted a woman leader for the party.

"I love the idea of a female premier in Nova Scotia," he said.

With files from the Canadian Press