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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith speaks about the Alberta government debt during a press conference in Edmonton Monday April 16, 2012. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith speaks about the Alberta government debt during a press conference in Edmonton Monday April 16, 2012. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Wildrose knocked off its agenda as final week kicks off Add to ...

It was a press conference meant to set the weekly news agenda in the Alberta election's home stretch - Wildrose leader Danielle Smith calling on Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford to “fess up” about how the PCs will pay for their campaign promises.

The answer was simple enough - surpluses, which Wildrose would mostly save and the PCs would mostly spend - but it was a good photo op nonetheless. Wildrose had everything in place. A debt clock, used to strong effect by the Liberals in 1993, was displayed on a TV over Ms. Smith's left shoulder, counting away the accumulated deficits of the PCs over the past five years. All major media outlets were there, and voters were paying attention with one week until the election.

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It didn't take long, though, for things to head off the rails.

Ms. Smith instead found herself fielding questions about Allan Hunsperger, one of her candidates who retreated Sunday from a blog entry he'd written a year ago, saying gays will burn in the “eternal lake of fire” if they live the way they were born.

The devout pastor's blog entry, since taken offline but still widely available, was framed as a rebuttal to Lady Gaga's song, “Born This Way” - as bizarre a moment as any in a campaign with no shortage of them.

They sparked a firestorm online over the weekend, one only exacerbated when Ms. Smith declined to condemn them, saying they're Mr. Hunsperger's personal religious views. Ms. Smith has repeatedly insisted her party (which has several candidates with controversial religious and libertarian views) won't legislate on social issues, and repeated that Monday.

“I expect that my candidates in their political forums are going to express the views of the party... [the year-old blog was]not in the context of speaking as a Wildrose candidate,” she said. “We focus on the issues on which we agree. We don't rip ourselves apart talking about divisive social issues.”

The questions persisted - Mr. Hunsperger's views “smacked of hatred,” CBC reporter Kim Trynacity said, asking whether that was beyond a free speech issue.

That drew a curt reply from a frustrated Ms. Smith as her supporters shouted down the question.

“If any candidate is guilty of a hate crime, then call in the police. There are criminal code sanctions against people whose language crosses the line into criminal behaviour. If you think it's that serious, Kim, call the police,” Ms. Smith replied. (Read Ms. Trynacity's account here).

With the leader having just dared the public to file a human rights complaint against one of her candidates, Wildrose staff ended the media availability soon after, saying it had gone off topic. It was the latest in the frontrunner party's bumpy relationship with the press.

Ms. Smith then took part in an online debate, in which she said the science of whether human activity is causing climate change is still unsettled. That sparked outcry from climate activists.

Just over an hour later, Ms. Smith attended a rally with Edmonton-area candidates, including Mr. Hunsperger. He briefly spoke to media, saying he understood Wildrose won't legislate on social issues.

“What I said was that I love people and everybody. I have no intolerance about anybody, but I do have a personal religious view. That's what I stated in the blog,” Mr. Hunsperger said, before walking away. He later fled through a back door, which a Wildrose supporter tried to block media from using, and got into a waiting van. That sent the media running after him precisely as Ms. Smith was signing her pledge to Albertans, yet another unwelcome distraction.

(Link Byfield, a candidate who is an outspoken free speech advocate and was once photographed with a prominent white pride activist, also declined to speak to the media).

The net effect of this was virtually no one spent today talking about Ms. Redford's spending plans. (Which amount to about $1-billion a year, the most of any party, and are basically banking on Alberta's projected surplus, forecast at $5-billion by 2014-2015).

Ms. Redford has indeed been coy about tax hikes, saying only that last month's budget contains no increases but leaving the door open to future “conversations.” It mattered not. Mr. Hunsperger's blog provided ample distraction Monday - in the city, at least.

Later in the day, Ms. Smith spoke to a packed house in Camrose, Alta., falling back on her stump speech to overwhelming applause. In Camrose, just one of scores of rural communities forming a pillar of the Wildrose base, you didn't hear the name Hunsperger once.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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