WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The race to replace New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who stunned the nation by resigning this week, got a little crowded Tuesday with three conservative lawmakers saying they want the top job.
The contenders are Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Corrections Minister Judith Collins. Several other National Party lawmakers said they might enter the race.
In New Zealand, the prime minister is chosen by the governing party's top lawmakers, who make up the caucus. The caucus is expected to take a vote at a meeting on Dec. 12. The new prime minister will have about 10 months to run the country before a general election next year.
Key had been a popular leader for eight years and was widely expected to contest a fourth straight election next year before his shock resignation on Monday.
Key has endorsed English, who is also the finance minister. English, 54, led the National Party 15 years ago for two years. He suffered a big defeat in the 2002 election, which was won by the rival Labour Party led by Helen Clark.
Supporters say English has managed the economy exceptionally well under Key and would make for a steady hand as leader. Critics say he lacks the charisma needed for the top job.
Under English, New Zealand has been enjoying relatively robust annual GDP growth of over 3 percent and the unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent. English has also managed to return small surpluses on the government's books over the past couple of years.
English said he will deliver tax cuts and spread the country's wealth to where it's needed. He said he's gained wisdom and experience since last running the party.
"I was 39 years old then, with six children under 13," he said. "So if nothing else, I've got the opportunity to focus much more on the job now than was the case then."
Coleman, 50, is known for being ambitious but his decision to run still came as a surprise to many. He said he has attributes that go beyond his time in parliament running the difficult health portfolio.
"I was not a career politician so I've been a doctor," he said. "I live my life in the community. My kids go to state primary schools. So I think I have a deep connection with the concerns of ordinary New Zealanders."
He said there was an appetite for change within the party and he liked where he was positioned in the race.
Collins, 57, is known as tough, plain spoken and something of a maverick. In 2014, when she was Minister of Justice, she was forced to resign her portfolio three weeks before the general election due to her ties with a controversial blogger. She remained as a member of parliament.
About a year ago she returned to the inner circle of the Cabinet, taking on the police and corrections portfolios.
"One of the things that you learn in life is that you learn from things that go wrong," she said, adding she stayed because she believed she was still adding value.
"We're going to go into the toughest campaign ever that we have fought," she said.
Key led the National Party to election victories in 2008, 2011 and 2014. He was seen as affable and sometimes even a little goofy but with an uncanny ability to connect with voters. Opinion polls showed he remained by far the most popular choice to lead the country of 4.7 million people even after eight years in the highly scrutinized role.
As well as being praised for his economic management, Key, 55, was applauded for the way he handled the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Christchurch, which killed 185 people. He suffered a rare political defeat this year when the country voted against changing its flag, something he had championed.
Key said he wanted to leave politics while still on top of his game and to spend more time with his wife and two children. His departure has given a boost to liberals seeking a return to power in next year's election.