Ontario Liberal candidates vying to become the province's next Liberal leader and the province's next premier turned up the rhetoric Friday, as the party's leadership convention kicked off in Toronto with a tribute to departing Premier Dalton McGuinty.

On Friday evening, each of the six candidates running to replace McGuinty gave short speeches praising the man who was first elected party leader back in 1996 and who led the Liberals to three election victories since 2003.

"Dalton has been in this business for a very long time," said leadership candidate Kathleen Wynne, who also praised McGuinty's wife, Terri. "The kids were little when he started. Terri thank you so much for the sacrifice that you and the kids have made."

Sandra Pupatello said McGuinty has enjoyed "the most fabulous career that a leader has had in the Ontario Liberal party" and added "if we could have some of the success that you had, we would be delighted."

That marked a change in the tone from the days leading up to the convention during which each of the six leadership candidates began staking out their positions, with rumours swirling about back-room deals brewing for delegate support.

Wynne, an MPP for the Toronto riding of Don Valley West, took a not-so-veiled shot at Pupatello, a former MPP from Windsor. Wynne told reporters she wanted to make it clear to everyone that she would recall the legislature by Feb. 19 if she becomes leader and premier-designate following this weekend's convention.

Those remarks were directed at Pupatello, who currently does not hold a seat in the Ontario legislature. Pupatello has vowed to seek a seat of her own before the legislature is recalled.

"The fact is that I have a seat, and we don't have to go into a byelection, and we don't have to think about going into a general election," said Wynne. "There is no byelection in my path," Wynne said.

McGuinty prorogued the legislature in October when he announced his resignation. Wynne said people across Ontario are getting tired of waiting for the legislature to resume sitting.

"The antidote to prorogation is to get back Feb. 19, the date on the legislative calendar," she said.

Pupatello responded quickly, saying Ontarians won't mind waiting for her to secure a seat. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has offered to give up his seat in the riding of Windsor-Tecumseh if Pupatello wins the leadership.

Pupatello, a former cabinet minister who chose not to seek re-election in 2011, was the leader in committed first-ballot votes heading into the convention with 27.4 per cent, and with about one-quarter of the ex-officios on her side.

The delegate count

  1. Sandra Pupatello 27%
  2. Kathleen Wynne 25%
  3. Gerard Kennedy 14%
  4. Harinder Takhar 13%
  5. Charles Sousa 11 %
  6. Eric Hoskins 6%

Results are percentages out of a total of 1,867 elected delegates. These do not include about 420 ex-officio members.

Wynne is a close second in delegate support at 25 per cent.

Leadership contender Harinder Takhar was in early to register Friday, using the moment to reject reports that he's either been a stalking horse for Pupatello or that he's made a deal with fellow candidate Gerard Kennedy.

"I'm not making any deals; I'm going for the top job," Takhar said.

Kennedy also denied he was striking a deal with Takhar, and said all of the candidates had met with each other prior to the convention.

mi-protests-300

A group of protestors gathered outside the venue and eventually spilled out onto the street. (Evan Matsui/CBC)

Kennedy, who lost the 1996 leadership race to McGuinty and also lost a 2006 bid for the federal Liberal leadership, was in third place in delegate support at 14 per cent. He is followed closely by Takhar, the former government services minister, who enters the convention at 13.25 per cent.

Also running are former labour minister Charles Sousa, who pulled almost 11 per cent of first-ballot delegates, and former children's services minister Eric Hoskins, who finished last in delegate support at 5.6 per cent and will likely drop off after the first ballot.

About 2,200 party members will form the voting pool at the convention. That number includes about 1,800 elected delegates who've committed their support to a specific candidate on the first ballot. After that, those delegates are free to shift support to another candidate. They are joined by about 400 ex-officio members, mainly party bigwigs and former candidates.

An 80-car pileup Friday night on Highway 401 east of Toronto caused traffic delays that kept some delegates from getting to the convention in time to register. In response, the party agreed to extend the voting registration deadline for delegates from eastern Ontario.

The voting gets underway Saturday after a round of 30-minute candidate speeches in the morning. The voting will continue round by round with the last-place finisher of each round forced off the ballot.

The convention is being held in the former home of the NHL's Maple Leafs, which is now a supermarket on the lower level, and a Ryerson University athletic centre and ice rink on the upper levels.

Just before 7 p.m. a large group protesting outside the convention venue spilled onto the street, forcing police to close westbound traffic at Carlton Street. The group was mainly comprised of teachers and their supporters, angry over the Liberals handling of a labour dispute with teachers that continues to simmer.

With files from The Canadian Press