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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 ...

Ms. Smith’s “breaking point” with the party was its 2008 budget of double-digit spending increases along with a big dip into provincial savings to keep deficits low – artificially so, in her view.

She says she decided to leave after a meeting with PC MLA Rob Anderson in which he related how 55 members of Mr. Stelmach’s caucus had supported a particular policy position. Their unified voice was cut down when the premier overrode their decision.

“One more voice in that environment isn’t going to make a difference,” says Ms. Smith. “There’s a problem in governance.”

Then she lists her grievances: “Lack of respect for property rights; out of control spending; lack of respect for individually elected members to actually stand up and represent their constituents.

“That’s when I realized that I hadn’t left the PCs. They’d left me.”

She hadn’t turned 40 when she took the Wildrose helm in September, 2009. The party had only one member, Paul Hinman, the man who had stepped down as leader. She didn’t have a seat in the legislature, but she persuaded three PCs to cross the floor: first Mr. Anderson and former solicitor-general Heather Forsyth, then ex-municipal minister Guy Boutilier.

The floor-crossings were a sensation; nothing like it had happened since the PCs were first elected in 1971. The legislature, dominated by a giant majority, only saw the occasional trickle of movement in the government’s direction.

WILDROSE’S DREAM TEAM

Today the story is much different – the Leader is battle-ready. When Ms. Redford criticized her lack of experience during the debate Thursday night, she shot back: “I don’t have experience running deficits, I don’t have experience bullying doctors and I don’t have experience voting myself a 30-per-cent pay raise.”

She was referring to hot-button issues of the campaign: the PCs’ having booked a deficit for the fifth straight year; evidence in a report that doctors were bullied when they tried to advocate for patients; and members of the legislature being paid $1,000 a month for being on a committee that hadn’t met for three years.

The Premier’s clumsy handing of the pay issue – first saying she would wait for a report, then ordering the members to return some of the money, finally commanding them to give it all back – probably contributed more than anything else to the PC plunge in the polls. Like many smaller issues involving money, it became a poisonous symbol of many other grievances.

Wildrose members of the committee sided with the angels and gave back their money, as did the Liberals’ Mr. Sherman, who quickly wrote a cheque for $43,000. But the PC contingent has yet to say whether it has complied with its leader’s order. Because pay is controlled by the legislature as a whole, she has no formal power to compel them.

The Wildrose campaign team is led by conservative icons: The manager is her U of C mentor, Tom Flanagan, who filled the same role for another former student, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Alongside him is businessman Cliff Fryers, Preston Manning’s former chief of staff and campaign chief for more than a decade.

For more than a year, Wildrose has shown signs of becoming a serious threat. The party raised $2.7-million in 2011, well behind the PCs’ $4.3-million, but enough to run a campaign-long advertising blitz.

Months ago, long before the election call came, the campaign team took Ms. Smith on a mini-election blitz, having compiled all kinds of expected, unexpected and what-ifs for her initiation. Crossing the province for three gruelling weeks and visiting two dozen communities, she was kept far from the comfort of home to ensure that she could withstand the constant pressure and exhaustion that comes with the real thing.

To observers who saw what was going on, it was a clear sign that Wildrose would be well organized and tough when the time came. Her performance in the polls and the debate shows a contender who doesn’t fluster and makes her points with cool authority.

Her platform distinguishes her sharply from Ms. Redford and the PCs: She calls for balancing the budget quickly, paying all Albertans an annual $300 energy dividend (instantly dubbed “Dani Bucks”) after surpluses return; allowing citizen-driven referendums and recall of politicians, creating a “Family Pack” of direct benefit to young families, and much else.

That sounds like the Reform Party to many Albertans – and it should. Ms. Smith makes no secret of her affection for Preston Manning’s movement and its modern heir, the Harper government.

And the remaining PCs, some of whom are more conservative than they’re allowed to admit, privately nod their heads.

This could account for why the spurned PCs are making every effort to build Ms. Smith’s stereotype as a “Little Alberta” politician – someone who would take the province back to earlier times, when a woman’s only door to the government party was through the Queen Bee section of the Social Credit newsletter. It consisted entirely of recipes.

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