It didn't take long for the Progressive Conservative war room to abandon its game-plan.
Alison Redford's campaign team had hoped to run like a front runner, bringing in young, green staff for “on-the-job training” and laying out a plan to talk policy while rarely mentioning the Wildrose Party.
But, as polls showed Wildrose surging, the PCs say they threw out the script - three days into the campaign.
“The campaign that I thought I was going to run turned out not to be the campaign that I ran,” campaign manager Susan Elliott says, saying it's because they were in “defensive mode” off the start.
There were several pivotal moments. The first was a move to quell outcry over a Tory-led all-party committee, which paid members $1,000 a month but hadn't met since 2008. The issue dogged the early campaign. On its fourth day, Ms. Redford said Tories would pay back “every penny” from the committee or be kicked out of the party. Candidates say that got a monkey off their back.
But things continued to get worse. The PCs say polling bottomed out in the days after a tweet from a government staffer, one that questioned why Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith doesn't have children (Ms. Smith revealed she and her husband had sought fertility treatments, but weren't successful). “That's one day,” Ms. Elliott says, “that I don't care to remember.”
The PCs decided to stick with their announcements for the second week, but started firing back at Wildrose. Instead of the challenger's planned $300 energy rebate, they said they'd use the same money to build 50 schools.
While the Wildrose campaign (led by conservative stalwart Tom Flanagan) ran a tightly regimented process, the PCs appeared lost at first.
It was a 10-person team leading the Redford campaign, including Ms. Elliott, who also worked on Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's 2007 campaign and, a year later, was among the team that ran the Alberta Tory campaign for Ed Stelmach, who won a commanding majority. With her was Stephen Carter, the campaign “strategist” who ran Ms. Redford's successful bid for the party leadership and then served as her chief of staff. Mr. Carter ran the so-called air game - dealing with media and stick-handling critical issues that erupted.
The PC 10, who had a daily conference call at 7 a.m., included some people who weren't even in the province, such as Jaime Watt, an ally of Ontario Progressive Conservatives and executive chairman of public relations firm Navigator, and Randy Dawson, Ms. Elliott's Toronto-based business partner and a key force behind the last PC majority.
The polls began to level out, but on April 12 came what campaign staff saw as the game changer: the leaders' debate. It was generally considered a draw or a win for Ms. Smith, but the PCs say it turned their wayward campaign around. “You all called it wrong. You're so focused on a winner or a loser. People don't see it like that,” Mr. Carter says. Voters narrowed the race for premier, and the PCs were able to lay out a platform, rather than fight Wildrose through the media.
Three days later, a blog written by Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger surfaced, saying gays would spend eternity in a “lake of fire.” Two gaffes surfaced shortly after: another candidate, Ron Leech, said he had an advantage in his diverse riding because he's white. And Ms. Smith told an online leaders debate that the “science isn't settled” on climate change. PC polling began to soar.
Wildrose, meanwhile, refused to condemn the candidates and the issue dragged on.
“Those were turning points, because we didn't expect them to become multi-day events,” Ms. Elliott says. Wildrose campaign chair Cliff Fryers agreed, saying “it would be misleading everybody to say [the comments]did not have an impact.” Then, on a Friday three days before the vote, Ms. Smith called a press conference to once again respond to the comments of Mr. Leech and Mr. Hunsperger, after the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton questioned her silence on the issue.
“Friday did it,” Mr. Carter said. “It defined the last weekend entirely on our terms in a way that we couldn't have done ourselves.”
It was that day that Ms. Elliott became confident, once again, they'd win. Neither her nor Mr. Carter predicted, however, they'd win so commandingly. A source close to Mr. Stelmach had bet on a PC majority, but says the party got lucky.
“The question isn't how did she win it,” the source said. “It's how did Danielle lose it?”