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Christine Elliott, seen here in 2015, has entered the race to be the next leader of the Ontario PCs.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party's leadership race jumped into high gear on Thursday, with former veteran Tory MPP Christine Elliott and political newcomer Caroline Mulroney both running to succeed Patrick Brown.

Ms. Elliott, a 62-year-old lawyer, announced her candidacy on Twitter. "I'm in!" she said. She also ran in the 2015 leadership race, finishing second behind Mr. Brown. After nine years as the MPP for Whitby-Oshawa, she stepped down in August, 2015, and was appointed the province's first patient ombudsman four months later.

Ms. Mulroney, 43 and also a lawyer, is planning to launch her campaign in the coming days, said Melissa Lantsman, a former federal Conservative aide working on communications for Ms. Mulroney's nascent campaign, on Thursday. Ms. Mulroney, the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, is the Tory candidate in York-Simcoe.

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"Our growing team is working the phones and getting significant support from caucus and candidates who think she's the only one that can beat Kathleen Wynne," Ms. Lantsman told The Globe and Mail, confirming widespread expectations Ms. Mulroney will run for party leader.

Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, 53, was first out of the gate. Rod Phillips, the former head of Postmedia, is still waiting in the wings, saying on Twitter that he will have "more to say in the coming days." The 52-year-old Tory candidate for Ajax also praised Ms. Elliott as a strong candidate for leader.

Mr. Brown's successor will be announced on March 10, making it one of the shortest leadership campaigns in Canadian history.

Despite the crisis around the Progressive Conservatives over the departures of Mr. Brown and party president Rick Dykstra, the Tories continue to enjoy more support than the governing Liberals, according to a new survey conducted by the Leger research firm.

In a survey of 996 people, the internet poll has the Tories sitting at 36 per cent support among decided voters and the Liberals at 33 per cent. The New Democrats trail in third place with 26-per-cent support. (A poll of this size is considered to have a margin of error of 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)

Among the leadership hopefuls, the poll shows Ms. Elliott with the strongest support at 40 per cent. Ms. Mulroney is second with 36 per cent and Mr. Phillips and Mr. Ford are tied at 32 per cent.

Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of Leger, said at this early stage of the race, Ms. Elliott is likely leading because of her name recognition.

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"She does have a higher profile at the moment," he said.

The executive of the party posted leadership election rules on its website Thursday morning, officially launching the 38-day contest.

Would-be contenders must jump into the race no later than Feb. 16 and they have until this same date to sign up new party members who will then be eligible to vote through a secure remote electronic system, beginning on March 2 and concluding at 9 p.m. on March 8.

Mr. Brown resigned a week ago, following a CTV News report alleging sexual misconduct involving two young women. He has denied the allegations and remains in caucus.

The party has also been rocked by the departure of Mr. Dykstra in the run-up to the June 7 provincial election. Mr. Dykstra announced on Sunday night that he was stepping aside as party president shortly before Maclean's published allegations that he sexually assaulted a young Conservative staffer in 2014 when he was a federal MP.

Mr. Dykstra has not responded to requests for comment, but he has "categorically denied" the allegations through his lawyers. He remains a member of the party executive but has taken an "indefinite leave," a party spokesman said on Thursday.

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Mr. Dykstra played a key role in the timing of the leadership race. Tory MPPs chose Vic Fedeli as interim leader last week and recommended to the executive that Mr. Fedeli take the party into the election.

However, the executive overruled caucus, leaving the party bitterly divided. Mr. Dykstra was the driving force behind that decision, according to senior party officials.

Mr. Fedeli had intended to seek the permanent leadership, but he bowed out this week, saying he needs to spend his time addressing a party structure that is in "much worse shape" than he realized, including the legitimacy of tens of thousands of new party members signed up during his predecessor's two-and-a-half-year reign. Mr. Fedeli has ordered a probe into the names and addresses of every party member.

Under the rules for the leadership, the party will continue to allow new recruits to pay for memberships with cash.

The leadership rules say a contender must support the "aims, principles and objects of the Party and the policy resolutions."

At a party conference last November, the Tories adopted resolutions that were to form the foundation upon which policies are developed. Mr. Brown unveiled a blueprint that would reduce income taxes and take over Toronto's subway system if the Tories are elected in June.

With a file from Adam Radwanski

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