VICTORIA – The race to replace Premier Gordon Campbell entered the home stretch Wednesday, as long-shot candidate Moira Stilwell withdrew and endorsed George Abbott for the B.C. Liberal leadership.
At the same time, rival candidate Kevin Falcon picked up two previously uncommitted cabinet ministers, Science and Universities Minister Ida Chong and Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid.
Falcon and Abbott have attracted the support of most of the current B.C. Liberal MLAs between them. Stilwell is the 19th MLA to endorse Abbott, and Chong and MacDiarmid bring Falcon's caucus support to 18 MLAs.
Chong said she waited until after the failed effort to recall her as MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head before making her decision.
Falcon "is the candidate best able to continue to build on the strong coalition we have across British Columbia, and that's really important for 2013," Chong said, referring to the scheduled date of the next B.C. election.
MacDiarmid, a family doctor before being entering politics in 2009, said she was impressed with Falcon's decision as health minister to introduce patient-focused funding for hospitals.
Stilwell, another doctor recruited by Campbell to run for a seat in Vancouver, said she knew when she entered the leadership race that she didn't have the profile to win. She is supporting Abbott because she believes he can reform the health care system, but "most importantly" because he has a collaborative leadership style the B.C. Liberal Party needs.
"I believe that [Abbott] has the best chance of holding the party united and defeating the NDP in 2013," Stilwell said.
The B.C. Liberal Party has set Feb. 26 as the date of a province-wide vote of members. The leadership candidates signed up about 50,000 new members between them, bringing the membership to nearly 90,000, party officials say.
The vote will be conducted by phone and computer link, with each of the 85 constituencies having the same influence on the result regardless of the number of voting members.
Falcon, Abbott, Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong, former deputy premier Christy Clark, and former Parksville mayor Ed Mayne remain in the contest.