Skip to main content

Candidates for the leadership of governing Liberal Party of British Columbia gather prior to a candidates debate in Vancouver, British Columbia February 12, 2011. The candidates are Ed Mayne (L), Moira Stilwell (2nd L), Christy Clark, George Abbott (C), Kevin Falcon, (2nd R) and Mike de Jong. The party will pick a new leader later this month to replace Premier Gordon Campbell who is stepping down.ANDY CLARK

BC Liberal leadership candidate George Abbott dialed down his criticism of rival Christy Clark in a key debate Saturday before a packed hall of party members.

But Ms. Clark - the perceived frontrunner in the contest to become British Columbia's next premier - was still the chief target, with oblique challenges to her future commitment to the party and her ability to unite the government caucus.

The main candidates repeatedly pledged to build unity and each worked in the phrase "we have six great candidates in this race" like a mantra. Like the party's previous debates in this 85-day-old campaign, there were no strong exchanges during the debate.

The debate was organized on the heels of a convention to approve new rules for the leadership vote just two weeks away. The party delegates approved a new voting system that will give party members in every riding in the province an equal voice in choosing the next leader.

After a week of an escalating - and increasingly open - feud, Mr. Abbott and Ms. Clark avoided any direct attacks during the debate. But Mr. Abbott offered no apologies for his tough exchanges.

"Agreement is good. We are all on the same BC Liberal team," Mr. Abbott told delegates.

"But there are points of disagreement [and]disagreement demands debate in a democratic party," he said. "Then there is commitment: As leadership candidates, we must make commitments to this party, its ideals and its success for years to come."

Ms. Clark, who is not a sitting MLA, has yet to make a firm commitment to run in the next election if she does not win the leadership.

Without making any direct criticism of Ms. Clark, Kevin Falcon highlighted his own commitment: "I will be there win or lose, I'm going to be there fighting for this party," he promised.

Mr. Falcon also highlighted his endorsements from a large share of the BC Liberal caucus - something Ms. Clark has not been able to match.

He called on BC Liberals to pick a leader who can keep the elected caucus together. "It helps when they are prepared to follow you," he added, reminding delegates that he has been endorsed by 16 government MLAs.