Ontario Liberals scored a third straight victory in a provincial election in Canada's economic center on Thursday, but fell one seat short of a majority and will need support from opposition legislators to stay in power.

The Liberals won 53 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario after a late surge in a campaign in which polls showed they started in a weak second place. The election numbers were not yet official and many individual races were very close.

This will be the first minority government in the province since the mid-1980s.

The Progressive Conservatives scooped up 37 seats while the left-leaning New Democrats were ahead in 17.

The Liberals' took most of the seats in urban centers including the financial capital of Toronto, while the Conservatives dominated the province's rural areas.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, now heading for his third straight term in office, campaigned on a message of a steady hand at the tiller in difficult times.

McGuinty highlighted his track record of steering the province, Canada's manufacturing powerhouse, through recession with no major spending cuts.

Ontario, with a population of more than 13 million, is Canada's most populous province. Its export-oriented economy accounts for about 40 percent of the national gross domestic product.

The Liberals lost a total of 17 seats in the election, with the Conservatives picking up 12 and the New Democrats gaining seven. There were two vacancies going into the vote.

Fifty-four seats is the slimmest possible majority for the Liberals. Being one seat short of a majority means the Liberals will need to cooperate with opposition legislators to push through their agenda.

The two opposition parties can join forces to vote them out, either by rejecting major legislation or by passing a vote of no confidence.

'PREMIER DAD'

The race began with a call for change over public frustration with the rising debt, taxes, electricity bills and spending scandals. In the end, voters decided that boring is sometimes best with a stable McGuinty dubbed Premier Dad.

It's important that we be sober minded about the message Ontarians have sent us tonight, McGuinty said in a bittersweet speech before a cheering crowd in Ottawa.

Ontarians said to us, 'We are placing our trust in you but we expect you to work even harder, listen more than ever and give us nothing but your best every day. But most of all we demand that you lead.'

During the campaign, the Liberals promised more money for their priorities of healthcare and education.

They say they can rein in a C$16 billion deficit and ween the province off its dependency on the auto sector by investing heavily in renewable energy.

Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, saw his lead disappear in the final weeks of the campaign as he scrambled to connect with voters on a platform that looked very similar to that of the Liberals, albeit with some promises to lower taxes and curb spending.

It is very clear that the people of Ontario have put Dalton McGuinty on a much shorter leash, Hudak told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Niagara Falls.

A vow to scrap Ontario's C$7 billion green energy deal with South Korea's Samsung and end above-market prices for renewable power were the party's only big policy difference with the Liberals.

Negative media play about right-wing crime and punishment ideas and moves deemed anti-immigrant and homophobic also did the Conservatives few favors.