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Danielle Smith speaks following a debate against the NDP's Rachel Notley on May 18.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Danielle Smith has had a lot of bad days in politics. But a particular Thursday in the May election campaign was shaping up as the worst.

To start, weeks of coverage of Ms. Smith’s controversial comments from her days in media were taking their toll – as they door-knocked through their constituencies, UCP candidates were hearing concern over what their leader had said about wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day or COVID-19 vaccines.

And first thing in the morning, Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner released a report with key details about how Ms. Smith, as Premier, had interfered in the justice system. Then, Ms. Smith was forced to disavow a central Alberta candidate who made a cruel scatological analogy about transgender children.

This was all just hours before she was set to debate Rachel Notley, the only matchup of the election campaign with the former NDP premier who had polled higher than Ms. Smith for months. The United Conservative Party Leader needed to show voters that she wasn’t the unpredictable politician her opponents, and her past, suggested.

“The 18th could have been the day we lost the election,” said Rob Anderson, one of her closest advisers.

Instead, it was the point in the campaign when the unpopular populist Ms. Smith became more likeable. It was the day UCP strategists became confident they would win re-election.

“We’ve got a secret – she’s going to kill it. That’s how we left our debate prep sessions,” said Jason Lietaer, a conservative strategist brought in from Ontario to work on the UCP campaign.

To understand why May 18 was important, you need to go back to the beginning of the month. The UCP argues it had a good first week campaigning. It gained momentum from a Calgary arena deal – technically made before the writs were issued but deeply political – which was followed by an announcement on the first day of the official campaign to cut personal income taxes.

But it went off the rails in the second week.

Erika Barootes, the UCP campaign’s director of issues management, said the toughest stretch of the contest started with a stream of opposition research. A video from 2021 circulated, with Ms. Smith comparing people vaccinated against COVID-19 with those who fall under the charms of tyrants like Adolf Hitler, and explaining why she refused to wear a poppy for Remembrance Day that year.

A separate video emerged, again from 2021, of Ms. Smith explaining how Alberta could privatize hospitals. Then came one of Nathan Neudorf, a deputy premier in a tight race in Lethbridge, at an election forum floating the idea of whether people would think twice about going to the emergency room if they had to pay.

The campaign, trying to change the channel, shuffled some policy announcements and amped up its rhetoric on the issue of public safety.

More damaging grenades – audio of Lacombe-Ponoka candidate Jennifer Johnson comparing transgender children with human waste, and Calgary-Fish Creek candidate Myles McDougall’s racist social-media posts – landed in Week 3.

On Tuesday, May 16, Ms. Smith and her team sat in a conference room at the Heritage Inn in Brooks contemplating how off-track their campaign was. They were in the Southern Alberta city because Ms. Smith had agreed to two debates in her riding, Brooks-Medicine Hat, on the two evenings immediately before the debate with Ms. Notley.

“We were pretty low. It wasn’t the best day of the campaign,” Mr. Lietaer said. They knew Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler could drop her report at any moment.

“We’re stressed. We’re losing.”

Mr. Lietaer said a positive that came out of the meeting was Ms. Smith’s messaging breakthrough. “She’s looking at her notes and she looks up at me and she says: ‘You know, I’m running on my record. Why isn’t she [Ms. Notley] running on hers?’ ”

In contrast with the sombre discussion taking place in Brooks, Ms. Barootes said the best moment of the campaign came that day. Ms. Barootes was in the UCP’s war room, an office space near the Calgary airport, when the NDP released the financial calculations behind its platform. She and her colleagues, at workstations in a bullpen, immediately scanned the document.

“I remember someone just yelling: ‘Oh my gosh, they are taking the business tax to 11 per cent.’ ”

The UCP expected the NDP to increase corporate taxes. But they did not expect the New Democrats to get so close to Ontario’s rate of 11.5 per cent, the lowest in the country after Alberta’s.

“I was like: ‘Oh my goodness, it is Christmas,’ ” Ms. Barootes said. “This is something that we need. We needed to turn the page.”

Steve Outhouse, the UCP’s campaign manager from Ontario – who ran leadership campaigns for federal Conservative Leslyn Lewis – said this gave the team the proof they needed to show voters that they should be nervous about the NDP’s fiscal chops.

“They gave us a gift,” Mr. Outhouse said. “We were able to very quickly incorporate that into our advertising.”

The prep for the Thursday debate focused on attacking Ms. Notley on that front, too. The NDP governed through an era of low oil prices – always the major factor in any economic slump – but conservative messaging emphasized that Ms. Notley raised corporate taxes during that time.

“People forget a lot of things. But they remember between 2015 and 2019, those were not good years for Alberta. A lot of people lost their jobs,” Mr. Anderson said.

The day of the leaders’ debate started rough for the UCP. The Ethics Commissioner released a 17-page report that concluded that Ms. Smith, as Premier, tried to influence the Minister of Justice in a way that would benefit a street preacher charged for his role at the border blockade near Coutts, in early 2022. But various parts of the controversy had been in the news for months. Despite the new details in the report, it felt like an old story for many voters.

Meanwhile, Ms. Smith said in a statement that Ms. Johnson wouldn’t be welcome in a UCP caucus after her “offensive language and a vile analogy when speaking about the 2SLGBTQIA+” students. Critics argued this decision took too long.

But for Mr. Anderson, it was proof that Ms. Smith had learned lessons from the 2012 election when she had refused, as Wildrose leader, to sideline two candidates whose controversial remarks derailed that campaign.

The UCP team ran through a full debate practice session, twice, in a hotel near CTV studios in Edmonton. Cabinet minister Rebecca Schulz stood in for Ms. Notley.

Mr. Lietaer had prepped Ms. Smith about being the more positive candidate in the debate. The team was thinking about how to win over the Smith-skeptical, but otherwise conservative, voters as they practised. “There were some people who wanted to be reassured that Danielle Smith wasn’t the caricature that they had heard about.”

Mr. Lietaer had seen other leaders ready themselves for a big debate. Stephen Harper, he said, was notoriously slow in getting warmed up, so aides always peppered him with questions right before he went on stage to get him ready. Ms. Smith was the opposite.

She spent the last half-hour before the debate “at a chair, in stony silence,” he said.

On stage, the NDP Leader got strong lines in about attracting renewable energy investments to Alberta, and on education. Ms. Smith reiterated the fib that Ms. Notley gave the federal Liberals the idea for the Just Transition plan, and carbon taxes. But the UCP Leader also looked steadily at the camera, and challenged Ms. Notley as if she were the incumbent instead of Ms. Smith.

The UCP Leader’s closing comments were particularly powerful. “My commitment to each of you if re-elected is to serve you with everything I have and to the best of my ability, however imperfect that may be at times.”

Counsel Public Affairs, a government-relations firm, said in a postelection analysis this week that most polls showed UCP gains from May 18 onward.

Watching from the other side, Alberta NDP strategist Jeremy Nolais doesn’t believe the election was won or lost that day. He stands by his party’s plan to raise corporate taxes, while axing the small-business tax completely. “Now we’ve got a government that is teetering towards a deficit with no real way to fulfill their promises.”

Mr. Nolais points to the larger issue that his party must find a way to appeal to people who have always voted for conservative parties, including in rural areas and smaller cities. He acknowledges the UCP lobbed some effective attacks at Ms. Notley. “I also think they lied a significant amount about Rachel’s record,” he added.

Mr. Outhouse watched the leaders’ debate from the war room in Calgary. He started filming near the end of Ms. Smith’s remarks. The room buzzed with excitement over her performance.

“It just felt like she nailed that.”

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