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Calgary-Mountain View PC candidate Cecilia Low meets Mary Ann Wright in her riding on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 (Chris Bolin for the Globe and Mail)
Calgary-Mountain View PC candidate Cecilia Low meets Mary Ann Wright in her riding on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 (Chris Bolin for the Globe and Mail)

PROVINCIAL ELECTION

Calgary becomes ground zero in Alberta's seismic political shift Add to ...

Cindy Chiasson had voted Progressive Conservative all her life, but six years ago, things started to change.

The Calgarian and mother of three balked when central Alberta farmer Ed Stelmach took over the party and began tinkering with energy-sector royalties, which she saw as a move away from conservative values. But she voted for the PCs for lack of an option.

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Then, Wildrose hit the scene and the centrist Alison Redford took over the PCs last fall. Ms. Chiasson made up her mind: she and her family are voting Wildrose, lured by its small-c conservative values and straightforward message of balanced budgets. The PCs, they say, are only masquerading as conservative.

“We don't want to get into the state some of these other provinces are in,” Ms. Chiasson said. “We're a conservative province, and we want to stay that way.”

Ms. Chiasson, 40, a certified general accountant born and raised in Calgary, is as much the face of Wildrose as the small-town, rural base from which it grew. The key to the party's transition from fringe upstart to mainstream front-runner has come as it breaks through in Calgary, a long-time PC bastion. Ms. Redford, meanwhile, is overhauling her brand on the fly, calling the Conservatives “not your father's PC party.”

Wildrose supporters here say the PCs have abandoned them, becoming a centrist party that's grown stale and forgotten its roots. The disaffected slid right, to Wildrose. “For me, they seem definitely more conservative, which is the viewpoint that I am looking for,” Ms. Chiasson said.

There are scores of such former Tories. The PCs received 500,000 votes in Alberta's 2008 provincial vote. Federally that same year, Stephen Harper's Conservatives drew 820,000 votes in the province. In the difference, Wildrose backers say, lies their party's support – so-called true conservatives who have abandoned the PCs but had no alternative.

But the PCs are betting that Calgary – a fast-growing city – is changing . And so too is their party. Ms. Redford has repeatedly championed her “progressive” vision and is chasing supporters of all types. Polls show as many as one-fifth of voters undecided.

As much of her traditional base joins Wildrose, Ms. Redford is trying to gain on the left flank as Calgary's political sands shift.

Take Cecilia Low, for example. In the past, Ms. Low had voted for then Liberal leader David Swann, whose centrist Calgary-Mountain View riding includes Kensington Road, Calgary's trendy stretch of cafes, specialty shops and restaurants.

Now, Ms. Low is running for the PCs against Dr. Swann as the party fights back against Wildrose, in part, by targeting Liberal ridings.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had a PC membership,” Ms. Low said at a bike shop in downtown Calgary before Ms. Redford dropped in for a poorly attended campaign stop. “It is not a big jump to go to the PCs under Alison Redford.”

Ms. Low, with an engineering and legal background, said she is comfortable with Ms. Redford’s “incarnation of the PC party” and admires her approach to issues, such as justice. The rookie candidate says she believes Calgary-Mountain View is the type of centrist enclave Ms. Redford needs.

“I think there are so many undecided voters out there that if they go to the polls, they are going to vote for the leadership policies they knew, rather than the unknown,” Ms. Low said.

As Calgary's politics shift, swing ridings and tight races are popping up across the city – as most (but not all) polls show Wildrose ahead in Calgary and threatening once-safe PC seats, and the PCs fighting back while turning to Liberal seats.

The Redford campaign thinks it will sweep the four downtown Calgary ridings won by the Liberals in 2008's election. Wildrose, too, calls them all “winnable”.

Polls this week are split on where Calgary's sentiments lie. One showed Liberal support collapsing and heading to the PCs, another showed the numbers steady.

Dr. Swann says he's confident he can retain the riding. “People here are not comfortable with Wildrose,” he says, adding Liberal support may indeed slide over to the Redford PCs, but mostly in ridings without a Liberal incumbent. “It's certainly a risk in some ridings, but I don't think it's a risk here.”

Just south of his riding lies Calgary-Elbow – Ms. Redford's riding. She is facing a challenge from James Cole, a chartered financial analyst and early Wildrose supporter. It's another riding in flux, where the Liberals are running a weak campaign and Mr. Cole hopes to snap up their support. “[Liberal voters]wanted a change in government and they were the only option. Now, we're that option,” Mr. Cole said.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith said she’ll visit several close ridings in the province, including Calgary, over the rest of the week. The battlegrounds, she said, are becoming clear. “You'll be able to get a sense of that over the next few days,” Ms. Smith said at an event Tuesday in a Calgary riding that went to the Liberals four years ago.

Follow us on Twitter: @CarrieTait, @josh_wingrove

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