The battle for Ontario begins in earnest Saturday but on Friday night, members of the Liberal Party came together to remember a premier that started out as an underdog 16 years ago.

Dalton McGuinty was thanked and honoured by his colleagues and family at the Mattamy Athletics Centre Friday night in a tribute that lasted a little less than two hours.

Six of his peers, each looking to replace him as premier in a delegate vote taking place tomorrow, paid tribute to McGuinty’s leadership, thanking him for his encouragement, trust and friendship over the years.

“Dalton is compassionate and tolerant and caring,” said Charles Sousa, recalling one of his more embarrassing moments. “I recall one day when I arrived late I accidentally spilled water all over him during question period -- just as he was about to speak. Dalton was drenched – shirt, pants, everywhere. His reaction speaks volumes to the man he his. He just stayed calm, smiled, shook it off and said, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t coffee or wine.’ And despite my faux pas – I still survived the next cabinet shuffle!”

But it was McGuinty and his children who captivated the crowd of nearly 3,000.

His daughter Carleen and his son Dalton Jr. hosted the tribute, showing home movies of the close-knit family.

“Dad, you said you wanted to leave the province a better place than when you started,” said Dalton Jr. “Mission accomplished.”

McGuinty started off the night by recalling the moment he found out he was elected premier back in 2003.

“It was here, 16 years ago, when they announced the results that Terri leaned over and gently whispered in my ear, ‘You said you weren’t going to win’,” he quipped. “I assure you, no one was more afraid than me.”

The premier then went on to recount the party’s many successes over his tenure, and detailed the gains the province had made under Liberal leadership.

“We’ve gone from struggling schools to the best schools in the English-speaking world. From Canada’s longest wait times to Canada’s shortest. From dirty, coal-fired electricity to clean energy, clean air and 30,000 new jobs. And when the recession came, we stood up for Ontario families by stepping up for Ontario jobs.”

He noted his party’s support for infrastructure, youth employment, full-day kindergarten and green energy.

“My friends, inspired by Ontarians, you turned our province around. Because we were headed in the wrong direction,” he said, undercutting the previous Progressive Conservative government under Mike Harris. “The last government had Ontario in a race to the bottom with cuts to our schools, our health care and our environmental protections.”

McGuinty paid homage to his family, particularly his parents who worked tirelessly to raise 10 children.

“My only regret is that my dad never saw me enter public life,” he said. “I am grateful for the support my mom has given me and I am so proud she could be here tonight.”

McGuinty called his wife and children his “rock,” thanking them for making their home a place “where premiers and politics count for nothing, but where being a dad and a husband count for everything.”

Finally, McGuinty wrapped up his speech with a final thank you to Ontarians.

“Ontario, the world looks to you with envy and awe,” he said. “And it has been my joy and honour to serve you as your premier. And for that, I thank you.”

Though McGuinty was revered inside the convention, outside the Maple Leaf Gardens, hundreds of protesters stood outside for hours, speaking to delegates making their way inside.

About 10,000 people are expected to join the demonstration tomorrow and will rally in support of teachers, unions and other groups who are facing austerity measures put forward in the Liberal’s latest budget.

Meanwhile on Saturday, delegates will vote throughout the day in ballot rounds until one of the six leadership contenders receives more than 50 per cent of the vote of their peers.

The leadership contenders are Sandra Pupatello, Kathleen Wynne, Harinder Takhar, Gerard Kennedy, Charles Sousa and Eric Hoskins.

The winner will be the next premier of Ontario. will have LIVE coverage online throughout the day.