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Candidates Gary Mar, right, and Rick Orman are seen before the start of an Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership debate in Calgary on Sept. 7, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Candidates Gary Mar, right, and Rick Orman are seen before the start of an Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership debate in Calgary on Sept. 7, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Tories playing it safe before leadership vote Add to ...

With two days before a vote that will eliminate at least half the field, the final debate in Alberta’s Progressive Conservative leadership race was a decidedly passive affair.

Tempers have begun to bubble up behind closed doors – about a controversial poll, about swarming advance ballots, about selling memberships too closely to polls – but none of it boiled over to the stage at an Edmonton hotel Thursday evening.

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Instead, candidates were cordial, if only because the format didn’t allow them to question one another and because Saturday’s first ballot is expected to eliminate three candidates, who the surviving trio will woo for an endorsement.

“You know, I don’t think it’s that anybody wants to take it easy, but the format’s set up so that it’s hard to address anybody’s comment but the one before you,” says Doug Griffiths, who was a crowd favourite but has polled at the back of the pack. He said candidates aren’t worried about deals. “If they are, they’re leaving me out of it because nobody’s phoned me.”

Candidates stuck to largely uninspired stump speeches – just Gary Mar, who polls show is the frontrunner, tailored his for the local crowd – while only two issues stirred the dreary crowd in a packed, hot room during the two hours.

One is the fate of Edmonton’s municipal airport, which has been closed to commercial flights for years and is the site of a major proposed, city-led redevelopment. A small group of advocates from rural communities around northern Alberta want it kept open for medical flights, and arrived en masse to boo the candidates who said they wouldn’t big-foot the city’s decision.

The second issue was Edmonton’s proposed downtown arena, which is still $100-million short in funding. All the frontrunners left the door open to indirectly funding the project, even as they played to the cheering crowd by saying they wouldn’t write a direct cheque to the billionaire Edmonton Oilers owner, Daryl Katz.

Candidates were also asked about two proposed pipelines that would carry Alberta oil and gas to the Gulf and Pacific coasts – Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, respectively. All candidates support the pipelines, a signal to the rest of Canada that Alberta’s leadership will remain unabashedly pro-oil sands.

“We need the federal government’s help to get the rest of Canada to understand this is not just an economic driver for Alberta, it would be an economic driver for all of Canada,” Mr. Mar said of the Northern Gateway pipeline, opposed by more than 40 aboriginal groups along its route. “For the rest of Canada to prosper, Alberta needs to keep growing,” added candidate Ted Morton, a social conservative and longtime friend and colleague of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Candidate Alison Redford, meanwhile, said it’s the new premier’s responsibility to convince other provinces what the oil sands mean for them.

“We don’t get to pound the table and say we write a really big cheque, so listen to us,” she said. “It’s about telling our story, talking about our successes, defining our future in our community so that Canadians understand who we are and how we matter to the rest of the country.”

Given that the PCs haven’t been out of power since 1971, its leadership race is the closest thing Albertans have had, as of late, to a vote for premier.

“It’s nice to have eight-and-a-half months behind me, not in front of me. That feels good,” said Doug Horner, the only Edmonton-area candidate in the six-person field.

The leadership’s first ballot is on Saturday. In the past race five years ago, nearly 100,000 first-ballot votes were cast. If any one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote that day, they’ll become premier-designate. All camps believe that’s unlikely.

If no candidate gets a majority, a second ballot with only the top three will take place two weeks later. In effect, it’s a second campaign altogether, and the number of votes cast on the second ballot in the last leadership race was roughly 50 per cent higher than in the first ballot.

Party officials have suggested a fall or spring election may be likely, but the new premier isn’t required to call an election until spring, 2013.

Earlier Thursday, leadership candidate Rick Orman complained to the party about a leaked membership list, which he says was tampered with, that led to a poll released this week. Mr. Orman was well behind the pack in the poll, a result he says isn’t accurate.

He is drafting a letter demanding a party investigation and asked other campaigns on Thursday to sign it; while all campaigns support the party investigating, at least one – the Morton camp – feels the letter is a political ploy by Mr. Orman and doesn’t plan on signing it.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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