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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith pictured in a grassy field in Stettler Alberta on Friday April 13, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail./Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith pictured in a grassy field in Stettler Alberta on Friday April 13, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail./Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Danielle Smith: Is she Alberta's Sarah Palin, or the future of Canada? Add to ...

When she has a rare moment of leisure, Danielle Smith reads another chunk of a book called Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.

“You can probably see why I’m interested in it,” the Leader of the Wildrose Party says with a laugh.

An entire province gets the point. Ms. Smith is widely thought to be on the verge of unseating the Progressive Conservative regime that first took office only five months after she was born on April 1, 1971. Several polls have shown Wildrose, a party formed just four years ago, to be leading Premier Alison Redford’s PCs by wide margins in southern Alberta and Calgary, and competing with it in Edmonton and the north.

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The irony in Ms. Smith’s other literary interest is so obvious that she laughs again when she says: “I’m halfway through a book called Eragon. I like fantasy.”

The prospect of a Wildrose victory does seem fantastical to Albertans who have lived more than a generation with the PCs, an utterly dominant party that has always held large majorities. Only four years ago, on March 3, 2008, former premier Ed Stelmach captured 72 of 83 seats.

For her fantasy to come true a week from Monday, one faction of the old PC party must overwhelm the other. It’s a cliché, but completely true, that this is a bitter family feud. Not long ago, Ms. Smith herself was a PC; so were thousands of those who now back Wildrose enthusiastically.

The genius of the party that Peter Lougheed built in the 1960s was to contain within its walls the entire Alberta conservative movement, even when Reform and the federal Conservatives did battle until the latter’s crushing defeat in the wake of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1993.

The uneasy provincial union of right and far right endured for nearly another two decades, but started to crumble in 2009 when Mr. Stelmach moved the PCs sharply to the side of progressivism and bigger government.

Ms. Smith quit the party that year and won the Wildrose leadership in the fall. If the PCs could wish or pray just one defector back into the fold, it would be her. Less than three years after Smith made her move, the changes on the ground are so unprecedented they almost defy belief. A few days ago, I took my dog for an evening walk and as soon as I stepped out the door, I spotted a line of cars – big expensive ones and little expensive ones – lining both sides of the street for two blocks.

The attraction, it turned out, was a fundraiser being held in a big house for a Wildrose candidate named James Cole. Hundreds of people attended. Party noise gusted out every time the door opened. I stood there with our little pooch, probably gaping as I watched Alberta’s political ground shift.

Mr. Cole is running against Alison Redford in Calgary-Elbow. Until very recently, nearly all those people with chequebooks in hand would have been going to an event for the Premier.

The leaders’ debate that was held on Thursday was broadcast nationally, bringing Ms. Smith into the public eye along with Ms. Redford, the New Democrats’ Brian Mason and Raj Sherman of the Liberals. Opinions vary, of course, but for many undecided voters giving her a serious look for the first time, she appeared confident, accessible and forthright in her views as she was being hammered by the others.

Of course, she’d trained heavily and was well scripted. In one way or another, Ms. Smith has been preparing for this moment her entire life.

PIONEER ROOTS

Her critics like to characterize her as Alberta’s version of Sarah Palin, but Danielle Smith is no backwoods Barbie. Nor can she see Russia from her house, which is 107 years old and located in High River, a bedroom community southeast of Calgary, where she is running against a respected PC named John Barlow, publisher of the local paper. However, she has a Russian connection in that her great-grandfather came to Canada from Ukraine in 1915. To make his job easier, the immigration officer transformed Philipus Kolodnicki into Philip Smith.

An overachiever known for working hard, Ms. Smith says she is following in the footsteps of some strong women who came before her, such as her maternal great-grandmother. Ethel Parken was a rural teacher and not above doing whatever had to be done, including shovelling coal to heat the schoolhouse.

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