Candidates made their final pitches to delegates at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention in Toronto on Saturday morning, in hopes of sewing up the race to succeed departing Premier Dalton McGuinty.

The two women in the leadership race, Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne, went into the convention with the most support from delegates on the first ballot.

After official results came in on the first ballot early Saturday afternoon, Pupatello was just two delegates ahead of Wynne —leaving them as the clear front-runners for the second ballot.

Prior to those results being released, they and the other four candidates appealed to the 2,085 registered delegates to support their respective leadership bids.

Pupatello favours centrist path

When speaking to delegates, Pupatello said she wanted to be at the helm of a Liberal government that will help the provincial economy recover, by charting a path through the political centre that will work for the benefit of all Ontarians.

She reminded delegates that she was part of the Liberal team that revamped the province after a tumultuous period of governance at Queen’s Park a decade ago.

"I don’t believe Ontarians want to go back to the 90s when we were whipsawed between the NDP and the Tories, with very damaging economic and social consequences," said Pupatello, who held a Windsor-area seat for the Liberals for more than a decade.

"As an Ontario Liberal, I believe there is a better way — a centrist way, one that brings all people together, and leaves no one behind."

She believes the Liberals must rely on their strengths and their record of success in government, as they move ahead. But they must also prove they are accountable and open to improvement.

"It’s called taking responsibility, it’s called being accountable and that’s what I believe in," said Pupatello, who secured the most committed first-ballot support from delegates at the Toronto convention.

Wynne wants legislature recalled quickly

While Pupatello has said she intends to pursue a seat in the legislature before recalling the house, Wynne, the MPP for the Toronto riding of Don Valley West, wants to get Queen’s Park back to business immediately.

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[Ontarians] expect us to lead and that’s exactly what I intend to do — first thing tomorrow morning," she said Saturday, vowing to call back the house on Feb. 19.

The two women secured more than half of the first-ballot support from delegates and both would make history if chosen as Ontario Liberal leader and the province's first female premier.

Wynne told delegates that when she first ran as an MPP in North Toronto, she was told that people wouldn’t support "a gay woman" like herself.

But with repeated electoral wins behind her, she said she is confident that the province has changed and that Ontarians now judge people on their character, not on their sexual orientation.

Kennedy knows Liberal potential

Gerard Kennedy told delegates Saturday that he believes he has what it takes to give the Liberals "the fresh start we need to be at our best again," by building on the government’s prior achievements and reaching out to rebuild support for the party among Ontarians.

The former Liberal MPP and MP entered the convention in third place in terms of committed first-ballot support from elected delegates, behind Wynne and Pupatello.

Alluding to his prior experience with the provincial Liberals, including his prior run for the party leadership in 1996, Kennedy said that he is familiar with the potential the party has in government.

He said the Liberals are best positioned to solve the problems the province is facing — and the best choice for Ontarians.

Takhar talks economics

Kennedy was the second candidate to speak, following a speech by Mississauga-Erindale MPP Harinder Takhar, who entered the convention stage to the tune of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive's Taking Care of Business.

First elected to the legislature in 2003, Takhar has held several cabinet portfolios in the McGuinty government.

He told the delegates about his journey to Canada as a young man, his experiences as an immigrant, his life in business and his eventual path into politics.

Takhar said his campaign has focused on ideas, as well as the challenges facing the province, including the deficit that he said may hamper future opportunities if it is not brought under control.

Economy must deliver opportunity, Sousa says

Charles Sousa said the Liberals need to nurture a provincial economy that can generate jobs and provide opportunity to all, goals that he would pursue if he becomes the next premier.

"While the other guys seek power for themselves, we're the party that holds the ladder steady and lets Ontarians climb," Sousa said when speaking to delegates Saturday.

To achieve these goals, Sousa said the Ontario government needs to make progress on a number of fronts — including getting the deficit under control, balancing the budget and improving transit.

The two-term MPP for Mississauga South also wants to see further investment in education, not only to protect gains achieved by the Liberal government but also to attract top students to work and study in Ontario.

Hoskins has 'no illusions'

Eric Hoskins told delegates that he may have arrived at the convention with the least advance support, but that left him free to speak from his heart about what he wants to see in his government.

"At this convention, I harbour no illusions about my own delegate math," Hoskins said when addressing the convention just after noon on Saturday, immediately prior to the release of the results of the first ballot.

"But in politics, as in life, sometimes you have to take the long view. And given my unique position in this leadership campaign, I believe that I have one advantage over the other candidates who have already appeared before you today."

The MPP for the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s said that his advantage is the opportunity to pursue the leadership openly and having the chance to talk about his own vision for the province.

He said that when the governing Liberals prepare to head to the polls at some future date, they will be asking Ontarians to vote them in for a fourth mandate.

That means the next premier must "reconnect" with people around the province, particularly outside the big cities, to "ensure that their voice is heard and their priorities are met."

Because he came last in the first round of voting, Hoskins was automatically dropped from the next ballot, thus becoming the first candidate to be eliminated Saturday.