HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's next premier will be decided on Saturday when members of the provincial Liberal party elect their new leader through a virtual convention.

The race, triggered last summer when long-time Premier Stephen McNeil announced his retirement, has pitted three of his former cabinet ministers against one another as they vie to both succeed him and maintain his fiscally conservative approach to governing.

About 8,100 party delegates have been casting virtual votes this week in support of either former forestry minister Iain Rankin, previous labour minister Labi Kousoulis or Randy Delorey, who's held the province's health, finance and environment portfolios under McNeil.

Votes have been cast since Monday via ranked ballot, with results expected to be unveiled early Saturday evening.

Political experts said the leadership campaign, conducted entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has largely flown under the public radar.

"The candidates who are running are experienced in politics and for some people, they will be household names," Dalhousie University political scientist Lori Turnbull previously said in an interview. "But there was no campaign, it seems to me, that really captured a narrative that resonated with people."

The party missed an opportunity to evolve, Turnbull said, noting the slate of leadership hopefuls does not include any women or party newcomers.

"This is a continuation of the current government and there is no breath of fresh air here," she said.

Observers have also said it's been difficult to determine a front-runner among the candidates, who have all touted their experience in McNeil's government among their qualifications for the top job.

Delorey has drawn support from several party luminaries, including cabinet ministers Kelly Regan and Gordon Wilson, former federal member of parliament Rodger Cuzner and former provincial Liberal party president John Gillis.

Born and raised in Antigonish, N.S., Delorey attended St. Francis Xavier University where he studied information systems.

He worked as a consultant to an automotive company, taught university-level business courses and even toyed with a technology start-up before entering provincial politics in 2013.

The 42-year-old was the last to enter the leadership contest and has cited his senior cabinet roles when making his case to take over as premier.

"I do have the most experience; I can hit the ground running there," Delorey said in a recent interview.

Delorey has proposed to defer provincial tax and loan payments for businesses reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and has pledged to offer free university tuition for low-income Nova Scotians who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Rankin, the youngest of the three candidates at 37, announced his bid for the leadership on Oct. 5.

He, too, has drawn his share of high-profile endorsements from the likes of former party leader Vince MacLean and former deputy premier and finance minister Diana Whalen.

The Cape Breton native has cited his youth as a political asset and released a platform linking economic pledges with environmental concerns.

He has pledged, for instance, to end the province's use of coal to generate electricity by 2030 and has set a goal of having 80 per cent of Nova Scotia's energy coming from renewable sources by that same year.

Kousoulis, 49, was first into the race and was quick to assert that the strength of his candidacy lies in his extensive business experience.

He has stressed the need for economic development in all regions of the province and pledged $60 million in tax relief to help the small business sector get through the pandemic.

It's a sector he knows well, having worked as a small business lender with Scotiabank and as a senior project manager with Truro, N.S.-based Wilson Fuel before entering politics.

While none of the candidates have tried to distance themselves from McNeil's policies, Kousoulis has been most up-front about his intention to continue along the path established by the outgoing premier.

"I am aligned with Stephen's policies and I have always said that as government, it is no different from your household: You have to live within your means," he said in a recent interview.

The legislature is set to return on March 9 for the speech from the throne, and a provincial election must be called in the province by spring 2022.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2021.