LONDON -- Former Defense Minister Michael Heseltine picked up his first heavyweight support yesterday -- from other former Thatcher Cabinet members -- in the battle to succeed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
But Mr. Heseltine still appeared short of winning a majority in Conservative Party voting this week.
Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major, at 47 the youngest candidate, appeared to be closing fast on Mr. Heseltine, while Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd appeared to be trailing in the race toward Tuesday's crucial vote.
If none of the candidates obtains a clear majority -- 187 or more -- of the 372 Tory members of Parliament who will vote for the party's new leader, a third ballot will be held Thursday. In last week's voting, Mr. Heseltine received 152 votes, just 35 short of a majority.
Mr. Heseltine, who forced Mrs. Thatcher to resign after he mounted a strong challenge to her leadership in the first-round ballot last week, was formally endorsed yesterday by Sir Geoffrey Howe, who resigned over Mrs. Thatcher's anti-European policies. His resignation was the catalyst of the political crisis that culminated in her resignation.
Sir Geoffrey lauded Mr. Heseltine as the leader most likely to carry the party forward to a renewed popular mandate in the next general election, which must be held by the summer of 1992.
A series of opinion polls published in today's papers indicated that Mr. Heseltine has the largest following in the electorate at large and might be able to reverse the lead the opposition Labor Party has enjoyed in the polls throughout this year.
Labor has been watching the Conservative agony with glee but has objected to the idea that 372 members of Parliament should, in effect, choose the next prime minister. Under the British system there is no direct vote for prime minister.
Labor politicians argue that a general election should be held immediately after the Conservatives choose their new leader.