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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Stephane Dion, the leader of Canada's main opposition Liberals, will not have much time to decide if he will try to hang on to his job after the party produced one of its worst results ever in Tuesday's election, a senior party official said on Thursday.
The party won just 76 of Parliament's 308 seats -- a drop of 21 from the January 2006 election -- and gathered 26.2 percent of the vote, the lowest level since 1867.
Dion has not talked to the media since late on Tuesday. Aides denied a Toronto Star story that said the Liberal leader would announce on Thursday he was stepping down.
"They'll have to give him a week to think it over and then send in a delegation led by (campaign co-chair) David Smith," said one senior Liberal, who spoke on the grounds that he not be identified.
The Liberal said the delegation would not have the power to force Dion out, but added: "He's got to go."
Although Smith is urging Liberals to treat Dion with respect, party sources say feelers are already going out to potential replacements.
Major newspapers said Dion had to quit.
"With numbers like these, Dion does not deserve a second chance," said the Toronto Star, the country's largest circulation paper and a traditional backer of the Liberals.
"If, nonetheless, Dion insisted on staying in his post, he would plunge the Liberals into an internecine war for the next six months," it said in its lead editorial.
Dion, a francophone who has trouble making himself clear in English, campaigned on a promise to bring in a complex carbon tax to cut greenhouse gas emissions at a time of high fuel prices and a stock market crash.
The former professor of politics is an outsider who surprisingly won the Liberal leadership in late 2006. He had little support among legislators at the time, and his sometimes prickly personality made it hard to win them over.
"Tuesday's result was more than a setback for the party, or a disappointing result. For the Liberals, it was an unmitigated disaster," said the Globe and Mail in its lead editorial.
If Dion does not quit, the cash-strapped party will have to hold an full-scale review convention next May to decide whether members want to launch a leadership race.
Akaash Maharaj, a former top Liberal who teaches at the University of Toronto, said it was unlikely Dion will stay on to fight another campaign.
"It cannot be encouraging," he told Reuters, saying whoever took over the party would need to shake up an organization that looks to have lost its way.
The Liberals have traditionally governed as a large-tent party, attracting voters from both the left and the right. Dion pulled the party to the left, territory which is already occupied by the smaller New Democrats and the Greens.
He won the leadership race in 2006 by taking advantage of rivalry between heavyweight contenders Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, who fought each other in a bruising campaign.
Rather than watch the two men battle it out again, some Liberals are canvassing other candidates. The names most often mentioned are former federal finance minister John Manley and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna.
Neither man was speaking to reporters on Thursday, although Manley has already pointed out what he sees as Dion's errors.
"If I were to be critical of Stephane, I think he took the party in a direction where it was fighting in a very crowded field for too few votes on the left side of the spectrum and that's not where you win elections," he told the Globe's website on Wednesday.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Peter Galloway