TORONTO — Former Finance Minister Paul Martin took a huge lead Sunday in voting to choose a new leader of the governing Liberal Party, making him almost certain to succeed Jean Chretien as Canada's prime minister next year.
In unofficial figures supplied by the Liberal Party, Martin had 2,420 delegate votes so far. That approached the more than 2,900 needed for a first-ballot victory at the November convention to select a replacement for Chretien, who has announced he will retire in February.
Under Canada's political system, the head of the majority party in Parliament is prime minister. If Martin gets the Liberal leadership as expected, he automatically would become the head of government when Chretien steps down.
If he gains office, Martin is expected to focus on improving Canadian-U.S. relations strained by personal differences between Chretien and Bush. Canada refused to take part in the Iraq war, and Bush later canceled a May visit.
Martin, 65, is expected to maintain the same fiscal policies as Chretien, though he has not ruled out changing recent proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
About 531,000 Liberal Party members across Canada have been voting since Friday for the 5,800 delegates to the November convention. Sunday was the final day of the ballot.
Most of the Liberal Party delegates must support either Martin or his only leadership rival, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, in the first round of balloting at the November convention.
Party officials have confirmed that either candidate will win a first-round victory if they enter it with the support of more than 50 percent of the delegates.
Of the almost 2,700 delegates chosen by Sunday morning, Martin had the support of more than 90 percent. Official results from the delegate selection process are expected Tuesday.
"The results have been incredibly encouraging," Martin spokesman Scott Reid said Saturday.
Copps had the support of 231 delegates and 15 others said they would vote as independents.
Despite some enmity between them, Martin served as Chretien's finance minister for more than eight years and was credited with balancing the budget and reducing the debt burden. He left the Cabinet in June 2002 amid growing resentment between Martin and Chretien factions in the party.
Whoever succeeds Chretien will have less than two years remaining in the five-year mandate the Liberals won in the 2000 national election. Chretien's successor is likely to call a new federal election soon after taking power to get a new five-year mandate.
Martin's support is so strong that other challengers for the party leadership, including Industry Minister Allan Rock and Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, dropped out because they had no chance of winning.
A victory would give Martin the political office sought but never held by his father, former Liberal Party politician Paul Martin Sr.
The elder Martin was a Cabinet minister who fought for national health insurance and other social programs, and tried but failed three times to win the Liberal Party leadership.
The younger Martin led the Montreal-based Canada Steamship Lines and entered politics in 1988 as a Parliament member from Montreal. Two years later, he unsuccessfully challenged Chretien for the Liberal Party leadership in a bitter struggle.
Martin has a law degree from the University of Toronto, and is married with three children — all sons.