But Ms Campbell immediately won the backing of the third-placed candidate, Jim Edwards, virtually ensuring her victory in the second ballot over her main rival, Jean Charest, the Environment Minister. 'We have to back the leader who has the greatest capacity to lead the country,' Mr Edwards said after announcing his endorsement of Ms Campbell.
The second ballot of the 3,400 delegates was due to start later yesterday. The winner will automatically take over from Mr Mulroney as prime minister in two weeks. Ms Campbell, a 46-year-old Vancouver lawyer, was less than 100 votes (or about 2 per cent) short of the number required in the first ballot.
Ms Campbell, who acquired a reputation as an unconventional politician prone to breaking conventions and candid outbursts, has been a member of the government led by Mr Mulroney for the past four years, most recently as Minister of Defence.
She took an early lead in the three- month race, in part because many people thought it was time for a female prime minister while many others thought it was time to pick a prime minister from some region other than Quebec, which has dominated federal politics for the past quarter of a century.
But in recent weeks Ms Campbell has made a number of faux pas and Mr Charest, her principal competitor, has been gaining steadily, despite the fact that he comes from Quebec.
Mr Charest had become a clear favorite in the past three weeks in opinion polls, but the choice of a new party leader is decided by about 3,500 delegates, most of whom are chosen by the Conservative Party associations at the local level.
Ms Campbell has promised to make significant changes in the way the Conservatives have conducted politics, and she talks about opening up the process to encourage more public consultation before the government adopts new measures.
Mr Mulroney had become very unpopular after driving through parliament a number of controversial measures, including a free-trade agreement with the United States and increased taxes. But Ms Campbell's tenure as prime minister could be short-lived, because the government must call a general election by November and the polls show that the opposition Liberals, led by Jean Chretien, remain more popular than the Tories.
Moreover, Ms Campbell has lost considerable popularity with the public, even though she retained it with the delegates, during her campaign.
Both Ms Campbell and Mr Charest have admitted to smoking marijuana in their youth; their revelations prompted one Toronto comedy club to name its political satire show 'Inhale to the chief'.
Ms Campbell, a former justice minister, first claimed that in smoking the drug she had done nothing illegal but later admitted it was against the law. A bill now before Parliament, supported by thousands of Canadians with criminal records for smoking marijuana, would legalise possession and private cultivation.
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