David Cameron, 39, the youngest contender, topped Thursday's secret ballot of lawmakers with 90 votes, followed by hardline law and order spokesman David Davis, 56, with 57 votes. They now have six weeks to woo the party's 300,000 members who will elect a winner in early December. Foreign affairs spokesman Liam Fox, who trailed with 51 votes, was eliminated from the contest.
After three straight election defeats, the leadership race marks a pivotal moment for the party. Four leaders over the past eight years have failed to broaden the party's appeal and members hope their next choice will prove more successful.
Since losing power in 1997, the center-right party has grappled for a sense of direction - unsure whether to stick with its traditional low tax, free market agenda or to boost investment in public services as Blair's Labour government has done.
Cameron's campaign is gaining momentum and according to polls, he is the favorite to lead the party.
The former pupil of the exclusive private school Eton says the party must show it is in tune with 21st-century Britain and adopt more socially liberal policies.
Despite being elected to Parliament only four years ago, his intellect and vision for the party have impressed members - some of whom compare him to a youthful Blair.
While Cameron is a centrist, Davis is considered the standard-bearer of the Conservative right. The former special forces reservist is promising a low-tax, low-regulation economy, tough law and order policies and less welfare dependency. But seeking to win the backing of moderates, he has promised to lead from the center.
Davis had a successful business career before entering Parliament in 1987. Supporters believe his bullish style and working class background could broaden the party's appeal. A.M.