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Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith acknowledges her supporters on Alberta election night April 23, 2012, in her riding of High River. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith acknowledges her supporters on Alberta election night April 23, 2012, in her riding of High River. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

Poll shows Wildrose ahead of PCs as lingering campaign regrets come to light Add to ...

Seven months later, the debrief went public. There stood Tom Flanagan, patriarch of the so-called Calgary School of conservatism, explaining how his Wildrose campaign team dropped the ball in Alberta's election.

Candidates went off the rails, the "central script" failed at the 11th hour – because they'd never planned to already be in the lead – and centrists flocked to the PCs.

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It left Wildrose in official opposition status, playing second fiddle to Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives.

“It was a respectable performance, but it wasn't good enough,” Prof. Flanagan said Saturday at Wildrose's first assembly since the spring campaign. “I'm certainly not satisfied with it.”

The speech by the 68-year-old University of Calgary professor, long-time conservative campaign manager and former advisor to Stephen Harper was, staff said, Wildrose's "open kimono" moment. It was accompanied by an Abingdon Research poll, conducted this week with 13,000 robocall responses across Alberta, showing Wildrose is now back on top of the PCs, leading 37 per cent to 32 per cent, well ahead of the Liberals and New Democrats. (PCs disputed the poll.)

Those numbers were similar to the middle of the campaign, when even the PCs acknowledge Wildrose had opened a wide lead. Wildrose did so by taking half the PC base and building on it, with particular support among the poor, empty-nesters and the elderly, according to slides presented Saturday. But Prof. Flanagan said the PCs “were able to back-fill by attracting voters from the farther left,” and Wildrose did poorly among students, young professionals (who Prof. Flanagan suspects didn't want to risk slowing Alberta's boom) and single parents.

Conversely, the 44 per cent who backed Ms. Redford's party was made up of her remaining PC base (17.4 per cent), soft supporters who flirted with Wildrose (15.1 per cent) and Liberals and New Democrats (11.4 per cent), Prof. Flanagan said.

“We have to liberate those left-wing voters to go back and vote where they would actually vote,” Prof. Flanagan told the crowd.

That will be accomplished by stronger research into its own candidates, who were held up as “the bogeymen” by the PCs to scare voters away from right-wing Wildrose and leader Danielle Smith, Prof. Flanagan said. As campaign manager, he skimped on researching his own candidates – something he said Saturday was an error. In the final week, a year-old blog by candidate Allan Hunsperger surfaced, with the pastor's views that gays will spend eternity in a "lake of fire."

“Had we had the opposition research, we might have been able to avoid the whole lake of fire thing,” Prof. Flanagan added in an interview.

He also noted the “script” they'd prepared for the final week failed to respond to the controversy created around Mr. Hunsperger and others, in part because they didn't expect to be winning. “We thought our job was to scratch up to parity, not to defend a big lead,” he said in an interview, after telling the crowd candidates have to be reined in. “The lesson for the future – message discipline. You've got to stick with the script.”

Prof. Flanagan joined Ms. Smith in urging Wildrose to bring in new policies, dropping elements of the infamous firewall letter he penned, with Mr. Harper and others, a decade ago. It advocated for a provincial police force and pension plan, but is now outdated, he said.

“I'm very familiar with that because I wrote it. And I think those were interesting ideas for 2001. But it's 2012 and politics have changed,” he told the crowd.

As Prof. Flanagan spoke to the meeting in Edmonton, his provincial arch-rival, PC campaign strategist Stephen Carter, was skiing in the Rocky Mountains. Told of Prof. Flanagan's presentation, Mr. Carter brushed off both the slideshow and the new poll.

“I hope that he keeps thinking that way. It'll make it very easy for us to beat him again,” Mr. Carter said in a phone interview. He said voters focus on issues instead of parties, and aren't as partisan as Prof. Flanagan and Wildrose say they are. “They don't understand that the average everyday human beings don't interact with politics the way that they do. That what continues to give me an edge.”

But, Mr. Carter said, the election reflection by Wildrose and the PCs amount to little more than speculation. All that matters is the next vote in 2016.

“The election will be held in three and a half years. When it's held, there'll be an outcome,” he said. “Until then, it's much speculation, much ado about nothing.”

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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