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BC Liberal leadership candidates participate in the first debate, held in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 15, 2017.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Candidates to lead the BC Liberal party, now out of power for the first time in 16 years, were contrite during the first leadership debate Sunday, with most saying the party failed to connect with voters in the spring election.

Throughout the two-hour gathering, the six candidates sought every opportunity to talk about how the party erred by touting the strong economy that came on its watch without making its benefits tangible to voters.

Former advanced education minister Andrew Wilkinson was blunt in his assessment of how the Liberals campaigned for the election last spring.

"We were preaching to the people from 30,000 feet. It meant nothing in living rooms," Mr. Wilkinson said.

Meanwhile, he said the NDP offered voters an appealing break on Lower Mainland bridge tolls and the possibility of $10-a-day daycare.

Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, who stepped down from her post as a Tory MP to seek the party leadership, repeatedly noted that the party lost 11 seats in the spring election – 10 in the Lower Mainland.

"It wasn't because ministers didn't know their files, but because we stopped listening," Ms. Watts told more than 600 party supporters attending the event at a banquet hall.

"We took our base for granted, and we stopped listening to the voters," said Ms. Watts, who warned BC Liberals face the prospect of eight years in opposition if they don't correctly rejuvenate the party.

In the spring election, the BC Liberals won a minority. Subsequently, they lost a non-confidence vote to the combined forces of the NDP and the BC Greens, allowing the NDP to form a government with Green support. The Liberals are an informal coalition of federal Liberals and federal Conservatives, but have no official links to either national party. The BC Liberals have 41 seats in the 87-seat legislature.

Former premier Christy Clark's name rarely came up during the debate, though rookie MLA Michael Lee, another leadership candidate, said Ms. Clark was backed into a corner by NDP attacks during the past election, which ended with a Liberal minority – a result that began the party's downfall from power. "Our team didn't come forward to defend her," said Mr. Lee, adding, in reference to the Liberals, "We have a tarnished brand."

At various points, candidates played to the priorities of Surrey, one of the province's fastest growing cities, with former finance minister Mike de Jong, for example, proposing a significant extension of SkyTrain transit whose southeastern line ends in northern Surrey.

Mr. de Jong, who has been an MLA for 23 years, conceded his role in the party's challenges. "I have heard the criticism, `That tightwad de Jong,'" he said, in apparent reference to suggestions he fended off spending on tangible programs for voters.

Candidates proposed some new policy ideas. Mr. Wilkinson suggested math tutoring be tax deductible. At one point, Mr. Lee was booed when he suggested the Liberals rushed too quickly to consider Uber and the high-profile ride-hailing service should not be allowed to operate in the province until it has shown it can play by the rules.

Sunday's debate was a first opportunity for leadership candidates to tout their qualifications for the job over their rivals.

However, they avoided taking shots at each other – a caution that may have been imposed by the preferential ballot in the race that will allow party member to rank choices.

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, now a downtown Vancouver MLA, slyly asked the moderator, during one segment, whether he was supposed to "bash" his competitors. "How can I do that when I have so much respect for them?" Mr. Sullivan said.

The candidates include former cabinet ministers Mr. de Jong, Todd Stone and Mr. Wilkinson. Mr. Lee is also running as is Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Watts.

Lucy Sager, a business-development expert from Terrace, had been running but was not on stage Sunday. Asked about her absence, David Wasyluk, a senior party manager for communications, said only candidates who had paid applicable deposits and had been approved for debate were allowed on stage.

On Saturday, former education minister Mike Bernier dropped out of the race and said he would support Mr. de Jong.

All are seeking to replace Ms. Clark, who resigned in August after six years as party leader.

Whomever provincial Liberals elect to succeed Ms. Clark next February will have to steer the party through a process of re-orientation.

Leadership contestants are to participate in further debates or forums in Vancouver, Prince George, Nanaimo and the Thompson-Okanagan region before party members pick a winner next February.

In addition, there will be a further gathering organized by the BC Liberal Indigenous Network.

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