VANCOUVER — A former education minister has dropped out of the race to lead the B.C. Liberals, just one day before candidates square off in the first debate of the campaign.
Mike Bernier announced Saturday that he is withdrawing from the contest.
“I entered the BC Liberal Party leadership because I wanted to build a stronger party, I wanted to bring people back to the party, and build a party that attracted new supporters,” he said in a statement.
“The goal has always been to defeat John Horgan and the NDP in the next election.”
The MLA for Peace River South told radio station CHNL that he had polled well in the province’s north and interior since entering the race in September, but struggled to break through in the Lower Mainland.
Bernier said the move is for “the benefit of the party.”
He has thrown his support behind Mike de Jong and said he will serve as co-chair of the former finance minister’s campaign.
Bernier told media in Vancouver Saturday that the veteran politician has what it takes to guide the party and win back power.
“He has the respect internally of people in our party and he has the respect of British Columbians,” he said, with de Jong standing at his side.
The Liberals saw their support dwindle in last spring’s vote, with the party losing seats, including four cabinet members, in Metro Vancouver.
The election ended without a clear winner and the Liberals were later defeated in a confidence vote, allowing the New Democrats to form a minority government with support from the Green party.
Former premier Christy Clark quit politics in August, launching a campaign to replace her as the Liberal leader.
Seven candidates remain in the running and will face off Sunday in the first debate of the campaign. The field includes former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, Terrace businesswoman Lucy Sager and five current Liberal MLAs: de Jong, Todd Stone, Andrew Wilkinson, Sam Sullivan and Michael Lee.
Stone took to Twitter Saturday to thank Bernier for running, saying “anyone who puts their name forward deserves our respect,” while Wilkinson posted a message saying Bernier will be missed, but will continue working “to keep our coalition united and strong.”
De Jong also lauded Bernier’s efforts and welcomed him to his campaign.
“This is a man with principle, this is a man with courage, this is a man with his own vision of what British Columbia can become,” he said.
The Liberals will elect their new leader in February.
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