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Candidates Rick Orman, right, and Gary Mar greet members of the audience before the start of an Alberta PC Party leadership debate in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Candidates Rick Orman, right, and Gary Mar greet members of the audience before the start of an Alberta PC Party leadership debate in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Mar leads Tory pack in Alberta, but faces second ballot Add to ...

Former Tory cabinet minister Gary Mar easily won the weekend’s first ballot in the race to be Alberta’s next premier, but the second campaign is already underway.

The province’s long-ruling Tories are split after a vote Saturday with dismally low turnout – Mr. Mar won 41 per cent of the 59,537 votes, followed by former cabinet ministers Alison Redford, with 19 per cent, and Doug Horner, with 14 per cent.

The trio will face a second ballot on Oct. 1, while the bottom three candidates saw their hopes dashed Saturday.

The final ballot is effectively an entirely different race, and by Saturday evening the winning candidates had begun lobbying the losing candidates for their support. All three final candidates are firmly on the party’s progressive wing – no social conservative made the cut at a time when the party is facing a challenge from the upstart, right-leaning Wildrose party.

The three who missed the cut include former finance minister Ted Morton, with 12 per cent of the vote; former cabinet minister Rick Orman with 10 per cent; and backbencher Doug Griffiths at four per cent.

Mr. Mar is best poised to take over Alberta’s governing party and become the province’s next premier, with a wide lead over his two rivals.

“Very strong, very strong,” Mr. Mar said of his results as he arrived at the Calgary convention centre where the party gathered Saturday. “My job is very clear over the next two weeks. I’ve got to get out there and sell more memberships. And our team is going to do that,” Mr. Mar said.

Ms. Redford, who ran something of an insurgency campaign that won her little support from fellow MLAs, said the results signal the desire for change in Alberta and show support for her campaign across the province. She gave no sign she’d back down. “We have two more weeks to convince people that what we can do right now is set a changing direction for this province,” she said.

The story of the night, however, was low turnout – fewer than 60,000 votes were cast, well below the 97,000 cast on the first ballot in the last leadership race in 2006. Turnout was particularly low in rural ridings and in Edmonton – it was a sunny day during harvest season for a party with a rural base.

“A lot of our vote didn’t get out,” said Mr. Horner, who has broad rural support. “We’re going to have to fix that,” he said, as he was a tough race for a spot in the top three.

Mr. Morton’s campaign manager, Sam Armstrong, said they were stunned with their poor result, and said the party needs to question why turnout was so low.

“It’s clear that the conservative wing of the party stayed home,” Mr. Armstrong said. “Whether that’s because of harvest, whether that’s because we lost them on various issues or for various reasons, I don’t know.”

The campaign now moves forward with the three progressive candidates. Rival chants of “Gary, Gary” and “Redford, Redford” broke out among the crowd as the last results rolled in – a sign that the race was far from over. But Mr. Mar has the inside track.

“If he gets over 40 per cent, arithmetically, it’s very difficult to catch him,” said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist with Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Prof. Brownsey said the low turnout is to be expected: the campaign has dragged on for eight months; Tory support has bled off to the upstart, right wing Wildrose Party; and voters have become disillusioned with politics.

“There’s been little interest,” he said of this leadership race.

Mr. Mar had consistently strong results in ridings across the province, where as all the other candidates had pockets of support – very strong in some ridings, very weak in others. He was the choice of MLAs, with nearly half of caucus backing him, and his campaign raised the most money – over $1.5-million. His campaign had, however, talked hopefully of a first-ballot win, something they fell short of Saturday.

Second ballots are a different beast. In the 2006 leadership contest, Ed Stelmach finished third on the first ballot, but shot to first place on the second – after selling thousands of memberships during the two weeks in between votes. The three candidates who don’t make the cut may also give endorsements, but their supporters will still need to show up and vote on Oct. 1.

Mr. Morton hasn’t signalled who he’ll support, and Mr. Armstrong said he may not make an endorsement. Mr. Orman said during the campaign he won’t back a candidate if he misses the cut.

“I probably will be supporting somebody, but I’m going to take a couple days to think about it,” Mr. Griffiths said Saturday evening.

He added that the PC Party needs to investigate why the turnout was so low. “I think harvest was a huge factor,” he said. “We worked very hard on the phones to get our support out and there was no answer because everybody was on the tractor, they’re working so that alone can contribute to a third of the people not coming out to vote.”

By the Oct. 1 vote, farmers might be better positioned to show up in significant numbers and influence the final ballot.

“It might change the result, it might change the way things are going,” he said.

Polling stations, staffed by 2,200 Progressive Conservative party volunteers, opened in each of the province’s ridings at 9 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m. local time. The PCs have governed since 1971, so the party’s leadership race is as close a chance as Albertans have had to choose a premier.

The new premier could, once elected by the party, call a snap election this fall – or, as the departing Mr. Stelmach has signalled, during the spring. However, he or she is not required to call it until the spring of 2013. Mr. Mar said it was too soon to say whether he would call a fall election.

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