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Candidate Gary Mar delivers his opening remarks during an Alberta PC Party leadership debate in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Candidate Gary Mar delivers his opening remarks during an Alberta PC Party leadership debate in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

No winner expected as Alberta PCs cast first ballot Add to ...

In the race to be premier, Alberta’s long-ruling Tories have wanted a front-runner – a consensus choice, preferably from Calgary, to prevent the unpredictability that produced Ed Stelmach’s unlikely ascent to leader five years ago.

For months, that man was Gary Mar, a former cabinet minister who was most recently Alberta’s advocate in Washington. Mr. Mar speaks in the polished, if consistently vague, manner of a long-time politician, making him something of an antithesis to Mr. Stelmach. As such, cabinet ministers and staffers began urging party members to fall into line behind him.

It hasn’t panned out, as Mr. Mar has so far been unable to emerge from a wide field as the consensus choice.

There’s only a small chance that one candidate could become premier in Saturday’s first ballot by getting more than 50 per cent of the vote. If anyone does, it will likely be Mr. Mar.

What’s almost certain is that no candidate will have a majority, triggering a final ballot on Oct. 1 that will include Saturday’s top three, after which anything can happen.

“I wouldn’t bet $5 on it,” said Rod Love, former premier Ralph Klein’s long-time chief of staff. “I never thought this party would elect Ed Stelmach, but our rules make this kind of selection process wildly unpredictable.”

Between ballots is when the real race takes place. Mr. Stelmach insists the key is simple: selling memberships and getting voters to polls. “Name familiarity may give someone a boost in the poll, but is somebody going to go vote?” Mr. Stelmach told The Globe last month.

Several forces are at play. Alberta politics tends to be divided between Edmonton in the north and Calgary in the south, but also between rural areas and the two major cities. The Calgary vote is splitting among three of the four top candidates – Mr. Mar, Ted Morton and Alison Redford.

The other contender in the top four, Doug Horner, is from the Edmonton area, where Mr. Mar, Mr. Morton and Ms. Redford have all made pushes. The rural vote, meanwhile, is gravitating toward Mr. Horner, but polls have suggested he’s at risk of missing the cut. “If someone like a Doug Horner makes it into the second round, then all bets are off,” says Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

Another question is whether PC members, facing a new challenge from the right-wing Wildrose party, will choose an establishment leader or an outsider. All the candidates except backbencher Doug Griffiths, who is polling behind the pack, have served in cabinet. Nonetheless, Ms. Redford and Rick Orman (a former energy minister attempting a comeback after two decades out of politics) have been the most active in distancing themselves from the party.

Mr. Mar has polled at just over 30 per cent and has the support of nearly half of caucus – strong, but not unanimous. “If he’s 10 points ahead of anybody else on Saturday after the votes are counted, he will win,” Prof. Brownsey said. But any lower a total and he’ll be seen to have stalled.

Mr. Mar has a long resumé, but a spotty track record. His ministry awarded untendered contracts of about $379,000 to one of his former aides for undocumented work – that same aide is working on his campaign now. Mr. Mar, when he resigned as an MLA, took a $478,499 provincial retirement payout after pledging he’d defer it.

Nonetheless, his experience earned him the endorsement of Calgary’s biggest daily newspaper on Friday. (Ms. Redford was its second choice.) Whether that’s enough to give the party the clear-cut front-runner it desired remains to be seen.

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