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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Liberals, who have governed the country longer than any other party, faced a major rebuilding job on Wednesday after their worst election performance for 24 years.
The party -- saddled with an unpopular leader and unpopular policy platform -- ran a poor campaign leading up to Tuesday's election, in which the Conservatives were reelected with a strengthened minority.
The Liberals, still the major opposition party, won just 76 of the 308 seats in Parliament, down from the 95 they had when the vote was called.
It was the lowest Liberal tally since the 40 seats they captured in 1984. In terms of the vote gained, the party's 26.2 percent was the lowest since the 23 percent it won in 1867, in Canada's first election as a country.
The party is short of money and faces the prospect of a prolonged battle to replace leader Stephane Dion, a former federal environment minister who unexpectedly won the race to lead the party in December 2006.
Dion vowed he would stay on as leader but may find his position quickly becomes untenable as the Liberals start to chew over Tuesday's performance.
"They have a huge problem. If he won't go, they'll have to push him out ... With Dion as leader they can't win. They've got to make a change," University of Toronto politics professor Stephen Clarkson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Newspaper commentators were unanimous in their view that Dion had to go.
"(Dion) failed miserably ... Mr. Dion should gracefully step aside and allow the next leader to be selected with minimal acrimony," said the Globe and Mail newspaper.
"Mr Dion cannot last, of course. He may try, insisting he's no quitter, but if he refuses to quit he will suffer a ... mutiny of caucus," said Don Martin of the National Post.
Dion said little about the party's future but deputy leader Michael Ignatieff was much more frank.
"We were not able to get our message across and everything's up for grabs here. Let's be clear here -- message, organization, money," he told the CBC.
"We're a great national institution. We have to sit back and be honest enough and ask ourselves exactly the question (of why we lost) ... We've got to put it all on the table."
The Liberals will be particularly concerned by their awful showing in Ontario, long the party's bastion. They took 38 of 106 seats, versus 51 they held when Parliament was dissolved.
Party strategist David Herle said he doubted Dion would lead the Liberals into the next election.
"Last night was a crushingly bad defeat for the Liberal Party ... my sense is that the party will hold him accountable for a campaign that he really was the author of," he told CBC.
Dion, a bookish French-speaking Quebecer who has troubled making himself understood in English, insisted the Liberal campaign should be based on the idea of introducing a carbon tax at a time when energy prices were high. Even when markets started to melt down, he said he would not compromise on that idea.
"I think my party failed to deliver a real cogent response to the economic and financial crisis," defeated Liberal legislator Garth Turner said.
The Liberals have recently become famous for infighting and both Ignatieff and Bob Rae -- front-runners in the leadership race that Dion won -- were careful not to point fingers.
"There's no point sitting there and suddenly saying it's someone else's fault. I was part of the leadership of the party and I have to take my responsibility too," Ignatieff said.
Unless Dion changes his mind and resigns, it could be some time before he can be removed. Party rules require a leadership review next year to vote on whether he should stay on.
If he loses that, it would trigger a formal leadership race, an expensive prospect for a party increasingly short of money. Several contenders in the 2006 leadership race are still paying off debts.
"There's a huge amount of debt coming out of this federal election. Everyone's going to chill for at least 18 or 24 months," former federal Liberal cabinet minister Brian Tobin told CTV.
With additional reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway