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UCP leader Danielle Smith, left, speaks at an economic forum in Calgary on April 18, and NDP leader Rachel Notley addresses the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 15, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Life is about expectations. And expectations in the Alberta provincial election leaders’ debate for the UCP’s Danielle Smith are lower than they are for Rachel Notley, which makes Thursday’s matchup more precarious for the NDP Leader.

I’ll go way, way back to 2015 to explain. It was a time when Justin Trudeau was not the long-serving prime minister he is now, but instead the untested, untrusted leader of the third-place federal Liberal Party.

One of the more memorable quotes of that year’s election campaign came from Conservative strategist Kory Teneycke, who said hopes for Mr. Trudeau in the first debate were exceptionally low.

“I think that if he comes on stage with his pants on, he will probably exceed expectations,” Mr. Teneycke added.

No one is casting doubt that Ms. Smith knows how to dress herself – and Mr. Teneycke probably looks back at that comment and grimaces at the motivation it must have given to the Liberal campaign.

Alberta election 2023: A guide to party leaders and platforms

But much of this campaign has been focused on questions about Ms. Smith’s past lapses in judgment, and her proclivity to explore issues, however controversial, as she speaks. Ms. Notley has had consistently higher approval ratings amongst Albertans, and is seen more as a steady and trustworthy presence. Trust in Ms. Smith is lower.

A half-decent performance by Ms. Smith will likely be viewed as a good performance, whereas Ms. Notley must be much better than decent.

In the case of Mr. Trudeau eight years ago, he held his own against then-prime minister Stephen Harper and then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair, both of whom had been seen as more senior and skillful politicians. The debates aren’t the only reason the Liberal Party won the election, but the leader’s competency in them helped.

“All Danielle has to do on Thursday is appear reasonable, calm, mainstream, and offer a positive, forward-looking vision,” said Michael Solberg, a former staffer to Mr. Harper, now a partner at New West Public Affairs Inc.

“If she does that, I think she’ll do a lot to calm some of the concern that people might have had because of the past comments that have been brought to light in recent days and weeks.”

Of course, this isn’t fair for Ms. Notley, and it’s far from a perfect comparison. Ms. Smith is leading a United Conservative Party government with four years of a governing record.

She has to answer for the party’s actions, including its warring with health care workers and their unions during the pandemic – moves that have made retention and recruitment in the sector difficult to this day.

Ms. Smith will have to do this despite the fact that she was on the outside for most of those years, pushing back against provincial and federal government health restrictions and vaccine mandates as a radio and podcast host, and in her newsletter.

She herself has a quarter century in public life and the NDP doesn’t buy my argument that public expectations are low for Ms. Smith. “We don’t agree with the things she says but we don’t underestimate her ability to debate, either,” NDP strategy lead Jeremy Nolais said Wednesday.

“I don’t think people underestimate Danielle Smith’s ability to communicate. I think they get concerned about what she communicates.”

The UCP Leader will have to speak to the things she’s said – like comparing the COVID-19 vaccinated to those who fell into line under tyrants such as Hitler, and calling the unvaccinated the most discriminated against group. And she will also need to defend some of the indefensible words from her candidates.

On Wednesday, Red Deer news site rdnewsNOW reported that UCP candidate Jennifer Johnson had apologized for recorded comments she made at a meeting last year where she compared transgender students to feces mixed into cookie dough, repeated a kitty litter box conspiracy theory, and talked about there being “hardcore pornography in the elementary schools.”

Expect Ms. Smith to go after Ms. Notley on whether her party’s plan to raise corporate taxes will derail Alberta’s fragile economic recovery. On the fiscal front: The NDP would eliminate the small business tax while freezing personal income taxes, while the UCP would reduce personal income taxes.

One thing everyone agrees on is how fluid the situation is leading up to election day on May 29. Polls show the parties near neck-in-neck in Calgary, where a number of hotly contested ridings will likely decide the election outcome.

This debate will be the first time people will see Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley squaring off as leaders, where each is capable of winning an election. (That wasn’t the case in late 2014, when for a brief matter of weeks, Ms. Notley was the newly chosen NDP Leader – firmly in opposition – while Ms. Smith was still the Wildrose Leader. Then came the December, 2014, Wildrose floor-crossing to the governing Progressive Conservatives.)

The debate on Thursday evening could move mountains of support, either way. Each leader will have to walk a careful balance of attacking their opponent, and presenting their party’s ideas for a province that shouldn’t have lowered expectations.

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