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Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith outside her home with her dog Caine in High River, Alta. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith outside her home with her dog Caine in High River, Alta. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Interview

With one shot at winning left, Danielle Smith steps away from the spotlight Add to ...

Remember Danielle Smith? If only vaguely, you’d be forgiven. Since Alberta’s spring election, the Wildrose Leader has been keeping her head down. It’s not that she is suddenly gun shy, or still reeling from a race she was days away from winning. It’s that Wildrose is contemplating a new reality.

After seeing its fortunes sunk last spring by anti-gay and racially charged statements from two of its candidates, Wildrose has decided to abandon the one-woman strategy it built its brand on.

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“It made people say, ‘Oh, we don’t really know who else is running with Smith. We know her, and we know a bit about the party, but we don’t really know if they have the bench strength to take the keys to this $40-billion corporation,’” Ms. Smith told The Globe and Mail at her home in High River, south of Calgary, where she lives with her husband, David Moretta, and their dog, Caine.

So, the all-Danielle show is over. Wildrose has instead been sending its 16 other MLAs into the spotlight to demonstrate Wildrose is more than a party of one – and that Ms. Smith is not, as her opponents have said, the charismatic, palatable frontwoman for some hidden social conservative agenda. “If we don’t introduce our candidates to the public over the next four years, we’re going to have the same problem in 2016,” she said.

It was three years ago this month that Ms. Smith became leader of a mom-and-pop party, and six months ago she was riding high. The party had raised $3-million, Ms. Smith was miles ahead in polls during the spring election campaign and had her hands on a transition plan – many thought she would soon be Premier Smith, knocking off a 41-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty.

“And I talked to my husband on the Saturday before the election. I said ‘Okay, I have this transition document that’s been written. Should I pull it out and start reading it now?’ And he said, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it until Monday night, until you’re sure you won.’” He was right. “I made a joke about feeling like the Saskatchewan Roughriders in that horrible game a couple of years ago where they were ahead the whole game.”

The collapse stunned many, including Wildrose staffers. Ms. Smith has tried to shrug it off – saying, with a hint of defiance, she did better than legendary Alberta premier Peter Lougheed did in his first election. This summer, she took a vacation in B.C. and then a 21-day junket for political leaders through the United States. Her MLAs, meanwhile, did the heavy lifting.

That is not to say Ms. Smith has stayed silent. This week, she was under fire for suggesting meat from the embattled XL Foods Ltd. slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., should have been cooked and sold to the needy rather than thrown out. A day before, she told The Globe that she’d be first in line to buy the meat. “Nobody down there [in Brooks] wants to even contemplate what would happen if this plant doesn’t reopen.”

On Tuesday, she began her first full legislative session as leader of the Official Opposition. She’s trying to strike a more stately tone as a government in waiting, but still taking the offensive. That included nipping at the government’s heels on a $430,000 donation made by Edmonton billionaire Daryl Katz to Premier Alison Redford’s PC party.

That’s one of many controversies that have dogged Ms. Redford’s party this summer. And though Wildrose’s fortunes remain murky, it can’t be written off as a flash-in-the-pan party. Its robust fundraising signals broad grassroots support. While the PCs trounced them in seat totals – 61 to 17 – Wildrose still got 34 per cent of the vote. That’s more than the Parti Québécois needed for a minority in Quebec.

In comparing her party’s results to those of the Quebec party and invoking Mr. Lougheed, Ms. Smith is pleading for patience – Alberta’s opposition parties have been too quick to turf leaders, she said, adding that she is hoping Wildrose won’t make that mistake.

“That may sound like I’m in self-preservation mode, but part of the issue is you have to get introduced to the public,” she told The Globe. “The level of awareness about who the Wildrose is and who I am was accomplished in that first election. So, we’re actually starting in a very good position to be able to continue building for the next four years. ... That being said, I understand. I have to win next time. If I can’t have a breakthrough to form a government after two elections, then maybe it’ll mean it’s time for new leadership.”

To win in 2016, she said, Wildrose needs to break into cities, because its seats are almost all southern and rural. It needs to demonstrate bench strength, she said, and it must avoid the “piling on” of a series of controversies during the campaign – Ms. Smith sparred with the other parties and both big-city mayors after refusing, for days, to denounce the controversial statements by candidates Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech, both pastors.

Wildrose will spend more time reviewing its candidates next time.

“I mean, we’re a grassroots party and I can tell you any candidate that is now putting his name forward is going to face some pretty direct questions about how they would respond in the public domain if they’re asked questions about some of these controversial issues [such as gay rights],” she said. “And if their answers aren’t satisfactory, they probably won’t be able to win the support of their local candidate selection committee.”

In the meantime, they now play the role of opposition. The MLAs all took part in mock Question Periods to get prepared. And spending scandals, a growing deficit and about-faces by the PCs made life easy for the opposition this summer – a return to earth for Ms. Redford after the 11th-hour victory over Ms. Smith’s party. And the Wildrose leader hasn’t forgotten.

“The PCs have done a pretty good job of spinning their results, but the fact of the matter is Redford led them to their lowest popular support ever in the history of them forming government, so that’s not something she should be proud of,” Ms. Smith said. “She’s just hanging on by her fingernails to government, in my opinion.”

In these moments, it seems as if she never left centre stage. For now, it’s just a lower profile for a would-be premier with one shot left.

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