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Stronach wins tough nomination battle

AURORA, ONT., OTTAWA

ervative leadership hopeful Belinda Stronach fended off a strong challenge from Lois Brown, a long-time Canadian Alliance worker, to win her party's nomination in Newmarket-Aurora last night.

"I'm excited about tonight. I think it's showing that we are continuing to build momentum. It was a big step for me," Ms. Stronach, the former chairman of Magna International said after beating Ms. Brown by a mere 100 votes.

"And I'm excited about the next 11 days remaining until March 20" the day of the Conservative leadership vote.

Ms. Brown, who has been active in many areas of the community as well as a long-time Conservative and Canadian Alliance party worker, thanked her supporters for their backing in a race that many believed to be a battle of money over hard work.

"We have made a statement," she said, before striding confidently off the stage in an Aurora high school cafeteria where about 1,000 people had gathered for the vote. Until the final results were announced, nobody could have predicted the winner in this race that was marked by accusations and bitterness, particularly from Ms. Brown. Had Ms. Stronach lost, it would have been difficult to continue her bid for the Conservative leadership with any credibility.

Ms. Stronach sold more memberships in the riding, but Ms. Brown has been working toward her candidacy for years. She won the nomination for the Canadian Alliance last summer before the party was amalgamated with the Progressive Conservatives. Ms. Brown's supporters turned out by the hundreds to the meeting, which ran an hour behind schedule to accommodate the large crowd that came out to vote.

Ms. Stronach, who is challenging former Alliance leader Stephen Harper and former Ontario Tory health minister Tony Clement for the leadership, is being assisted by many of the backroom organizers who helped the Ontario Progressive Conservatives through three election campaigns.

She was also endorsed by former Ontario premier Mike Harris, who attended last night's meeting to cheer her on.

"I'm excited about the party, and I'm excited about a fresh new face, and I'm excited about the opportunity to form a Conservative government," Mr. Harris said before taking his seat near the front of the room.

Despite the high-placed endorsement for Ms. Stronach, Ms. Brown's supporters were ecstatic with the turnout. "This is unbelievable that we've got this far," said Bobby Waciuk, who helped Ms. Brown with her campaign. "But, my goodness, we've done it with nothing," he said, rather than "favours and who can put an ad on the credit card."

Grumbling about the meeting began in mid-afternoon when Stronach supporters complained that up to 400 of their members had not been registered with the party.

Sources said that the riding contained about 2,400 members, about 400 of whom were registered when the Alliance and the Tories merged in early December. Since then, Ms. Brown is said to have sold another 600 memberships and Ms. Stronach around 1,400.

Although Ms. Stronach had a lead in terms of raw numbers, many observers believed that her supporters were not as committed to the party as those of Ms. Brown.

An official with the Stronach campaign added that party members are tired from the countless number of meetings and other votes --including last December's merger ratification -- and might not be as inclined as usual to come out.

The campaign has also been a nasty one, with Ms. Brown at one point accusing the Stronach campaign of trying to export a computer virus to the her campaign, a charge Ms. Stronach's workers denied.

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