02/03/2018 16:16 EST | Updated 02/03/2018 16:21 EST

Former Tory MP Dianne Watts leads race to lead B.C. Liberals after first ballot

VANCOUVER — A former Conservative MP jumped into the lead of the race to lead British Columbia's Liberal party after the first ballot on Saturday night.

Dianne Watts had support of almost 25 per cent of party supporters who voted, with her closest challenge coming from Michael Lee with about 22 per cent.

Andrew Wilkinson was third at 18 per cent, Todd Stone fourth at 17 per cent and Mike de Jong fifth with 16 per cent.

Sam Sullivan finished in sixth at about two per cent of the vote and was dropped from the second ballot.

An estimated 60,000 party members were eligible to vote online and by phone to replace Christy Clark, who resigned after the New Democrats formed a minority government last summer, ending the Liberals 16 years in power.

Watts is the only candidate who is not part of the Liberal caucus in the legislature.

Lee is a Vancouver lawyer who was elected to the legislature last spring.

Wilkinson, Stone and de Jong were longtime members of Clark's cabinet.

The B.C. Liberal party is not affiliated with the federal Liberals. It describes itself as "a made-in-B.C. free enterprise coalition" that includes members of the federal Conservative and Liberal parties.

Getting the party back to power after a lacklustre election campaign last May has been a focus of the leadership campaign.

There was finger-pointing in debates over who was to blame for the Liberal downfall, despite B.C. boasting the strongest economy in Canada.

Some candidates criticized the party's old guard for failing to address transportation, housing and social policy issues that led to losses in seat-rich Metro Vancouver, once a Liberal stronghold.

De Jong, the former finance minister, defended the Liberal record as he was criticized by many of the other candidates for his tight-fisted control of the province's purse strings, which some of his former cabinet colleagues said prevented programs aimed at easing financial pressures for people never made it off the drawing board.