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British Columbia NDP leadership candidates Mike Farnworth, left, and Adrian Dix share a laugh before the taping of a television debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday April 9, 2011. The party will elect a new leader on April 17 to replace Carole James who stepped down in December following a caucus revolt. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
British Columbia NDP leadership candidates Mike Farnworth, left, and Adrian Dix share a laugh before the taping of a television debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday April 9, 2011. The party will elect a new leader on April 17 to replace Carole James who stepped down in December following a caucus revolt. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

BC NDP debate underlines policy harmony among candidates Add to ...

The four men vying to lead the B.C. New Democrats say their party hasn't been hurt among female voters over the ousting of their female leader.

During the final debate in the race to succeed Carole James, the candidates also said they doubted Premier Christy Clark's gender would give her an edge among female voters in the next provincial election.

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The question from a journalist opened the Shaw TV debate, which will air Sunday and be repeated in the week leading to April. 17 when thousands of New Democrats choose a successor for Ms. James, ousted last year by a caucus revolt.

John Horgan noted that, in government, the BC NDP had a ministry of women's equality as part of an "unparalleled record" on women's issues.

"I believe certainly that the BC Liberals hope to change the channel by removing the premier, Gordon Campbell, and replacing him with another face, another personality," Mr. Horgan said during the taping of the 60-minute debate.

Fellow MLA Adrian Dix said there are real differences between himself and Ms. Clark, a former education minister, on issues ranging from health care to education that, as leader, he would underline in the next election.

"Women voters are going to respond positively to our agenda," said Mr. Dix. "I think when we put the clear differences before the voters, that I'll win that election and the NDP will win a majority government, both among women and men."

An Angus Reid poll released in March suggested the BC Liberals had a 14-point advantage among male voters while the BC NDP actually leads among women by five points, down from nine points in February.

Mike Farnworth said the gender of a party's leader mattered less than its policies, and the NDP would do well with a positive, progressive agenda and a united caucus and party.

There were two women - Ms. Clark and Moira Stilwell - in the BC Liberal leadership race, which saw Ms. Clark elected Feb. 26.

"I don't think the voters of B.C. are overly interested in the gender of their premier," said Dana Larsen, an advocate for medicinal marijuana who is the only non-MLA remaining in the race.

There have been no women in the NDP competition, which began with six candidates.

Saturday's debate largely underlined the policy harmony, whether on raises for teachers, the harmonized sales tax or gaming that have been a feature of the leadership race, which began with six candidates, but is now down to four.

"Mike, Adrian and I and now Dana have become quite a unified force at party events right across the province," Mr. Horgan told reporters, following the debate.

Candidates also highlighted some pet ideas, which have been part of their pitch for support with, for example, Mr. Horgan touting his proposals for a fair-tax commission and Mr. Farnworth highlighting his ideas about an education commission.

Mr. Horgan threw an interesting twist into the discussion, suggesting Victoria should have drafted plans for a provincial police force as a negotiating chip in contract talks with the RCMP over policing of the province.

"Government has failed by not putting forward an alternative to just re-upping with the RCMP," said Mr. Horgan.

"The provincial government has failed by not having a provincial police force option on the table so they can have a true negotiation from a position of strength."

Following the debate, Mr. Horgan and Mr. Dix downplayed any damage to their bids inflicted by former premier Mike Harcourt's unexpected decision Friday to endorse Mr. Farnworth.

Mr. Harcourt, B.C.'s premier between 1991 and 1996, had said he would remain neutral in the race, but unexpectedly declared Mr. Farnworth the candidate best able to lead the NDP to victory in the next election.

"There are over 28,000 members of the New Democratic Party that will be voting on the 17th of April. Mike Harcourt is one," said Mr. Horgan.

Mr. Horgan said Mr. Harcourt, seen as a political moderate, told him earlier this week he would remain neutral, but that he accepted that the former Vancouver mayor had changed his mind.

Mr. Dix said he respected Mr. Harcourt, and had conversations with him recently, but that all members have one vote.

"Every member has the same power to elect a new leader of the NDP," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

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