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British Columbia Health Minister Kevin Falcon at the Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Friday November 19, 2010. (Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press)
British Columbia Health Minister Kevin Falcon at the Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Friday November 19, 2010. (Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press)

Candidates emerge in race for Campbell's seat Add to ...

With two declared candidates, the Liberal leadership race is officially under way. Although next week is when the contest to replace Premier Gordon Campbell gets truly interesting, and those currently weighing their options drop down on one side of the fence or the other.

While the record will show that former economic development minister Moira Stilwell entered before all others, George Abbott on Thursday became the first true heavyweight to get in this thing.

Mr. Abbott's candidacy is intriguing. Even though he has held fairly high-profile ministries during his nine years in government, a five-year stint in Health being the most notable, he enters the race with a more benign profile than others who have held lesser jobs.

If the leadership contest allows people to get to know the man better, I think they'll be pleasantly surprised. He is extremely smart, with a particular penchant for reducing complex problems to their simplest form. He is noted around the legislature for being liked by members of both sides of the house, which is rare. He has a droll sense of humour. He is likely to be the only candidate from rural B.C.

Personally, I like his style. Whenever I visited Victoria and wanted to talk to Mr. Abbott about health policy, he would invite me up to his cabinet office, bring in his deputy, and pour us all a glass of red wine. These meetings, I should add, were always held at the end of the day.

One thing Mr. Abbott is not is an ideologue, much to the chagrin of some of those on the right of the party. After launching the $10-million Conversation on Health Care, a series of town hall meetings throughout the province aimed at seeking input from the public, Mr. Abbott refused to make the kind of radical changes to the system some in his party suggested he could.

He didn't see it that way.

His record as a minister indicates he is a consensus seeker, something that certainly sets him apart from the man he hopes to replace. His evident and ready sense of humour would be another difference. Organizationally, Mr. Abbott should be far ahead of many of his rivals. He's been plotting this campaign for more than a year.

But he will be facing stiff competition.

It seems a given that the current Health Minister, Kevin Falcon, will join the race next week. Mr. Falcon is another who is believed to have been strategically imagining this moment for some time. When he enters the race, he will do so with a top-notch organization with a blue-chip backroom team. He has been entertaining B.C. Young Liberals at party conventions for some time and is believed to have a sizable advantage when it comes to wooing this demographic.

Every candidate in this race has to envisage the worst thing someone can say about them. It is a time-tested credo of any campaign. And it's likely that the worst thing anyone will be able to say about Mr. Falcon is that he is a Gordon Campbell knockoff, a brash protégé who always imagined accepting the leadership baton from his mentor.

In Health, Mr. Falcon has tempered his bull-in-a-china-shop instincts. Maybe he realized it was a style that would fail spectacularly in the ministry he now holds. Maybe he realized he might be running for leader sooner than he thought. Who knows? But he will definitely assume front-runner or co-front-runner status when, as expected, he makes his candidacy official next week.

Two of Mr. Falcon's cabinet colleagues also weighing their options are Attorney-General Mike de Jong and Solicitor-General Rich Coleman. Both are incredibly able politicians who have distinguished themselves in the various ministries they've held. The biggest question is how broad their appeal is within the party.

The most intriguing potential candidate remains politician-turned-radio host Christy Clark, who is also said to be seriously considering a run.

She would certainly add some glitz and sparkle to the campaign. During her three-year stint in government, where she was education minister and later minister of children and family services, she was known for possessing superb communication skills.

Ms. Clark also established a reputation for a highly partisan, sometimes confrontational style that made her no friends among teachers in the province.

She is said to have lined up one of the top backroom organizers in the country, Ken Boessenkool, to run her campaign. Mr. Boessenkool has close ties to the federal Conservative Party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose successful 2006 campaign he helped mastermind.

Ms. Clark's former husband, meantime, is Mark Marissen, a brilliant campaign organizer in his own right who would undoubtedly lend a hand. Her brother, Bruce Clark, is a campaign fundraiser for the federal Liberals and would have a Rolodex, one would think, that would come in handy when it came to raising money. While she is being pushed hard to run, Ms. Clark, a single mother, has apparently agonized over the decision because of the impact it would have on her nine-year-old son, Hamish.

If she decides to go, however, her campaign will certainly attract plenty of attention. The race is about to get interesting.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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