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Peter MacKay addresses the crowd at a federal Conservative leadership forum during the annual general meeting of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party, in Halifax, in a Feb. 8, 2020, file photo.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Just days ago, Peter MacKay was the candidate to beat in the federal Conservative leadership race, with some in the party worrying the vote in June could end up as a coronation for the former federal cabinet minister.

In the basement of a popular bar in Calgary this week, he got a celebrity-like welcome from the party’s base in Alberta’s largest city. Hundreds of people packed into a steamy room for the Tuesday evening meet-and-greet. For all the handshaking and selfie-taking, Mr. MacKay’s exit after his speech took almost an hour.

He continued his Alberta tour with a visit to Edmonton. He announced on Twitter that his campaign had raised $1-million in six weeks. The leadership candidate also said he hoped to meet with Jason Kenney while in the provincial capital. But the Premier’s office simply said it wasn’t on Mr. Kenney’s calendar.

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On Thursday afternoon, the Premier formally rained on Mr. MacKay’s parade and endorsed leadership candidate Erin O’Toole, calling the MP from Durham “competent and principled" and saying the party needs a leader who “is true blue and can get things done.” He also took a direct jab at Mr. MacKay, suggesting he wouldn’t be welcoming to the party’s social conservatives.

Mr. MacKay’s front-runner status in Alberta – and across the country – has taken a hit.

It remains to be seen how much the Kenney endorsement matters, but it’s no small thing. Leadership contenders can count on Alberta votes in a general election regardless of who wins the leadership race, but they still need the home base for money, signatures and volunteers. Mr. O’Toole can now also benefit from the recent campaigns Mr. Kenney has run and won in the province.

And from his long time in federal politics, the Alberta Premier also has networks across the country.

There were clear early signs that Mr. Kenney wasn’t enamoured of Mr. MacKay’s candidacy. As the leadership race cranked up in December, Mr. Kenney initially pushed for former interim leader Rona Ambrose to run. She decided against it in January. Days later, Pierre Poilievre – who could also be described as a “true blue" Conservative – suddenly bowed out of the leadership contest.

Instantly, Mr. MacKay became the most recognizable name in the race. Soon after, Mr. Kenney began lobbying for another former cabinet heavyweight, John Baird, to run. He, too, eventually declined.

Conservative leadership candidate Marilyn Gladu – also in Alberta this week in her own bid for support and name recognition – said in an interview that Mr. Kenney invited her to the throne speech last month, but “I don’t think Peter MacKay was invited” and “I’m not sure that’s his favourite.”

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It’s now totally clear that Mr. MacKay is not the Alberta Premier’s favourite. “Erin O’Toole respects the breadth of our big tent coalition. Every conservative would be welcome in a party led by Erin," Mr. Kenney wrote Thursday.

"No one will have their deeply-held beliefs dismissed as ‘stinking albatrosses’ under Erin O’Toole’s leadership,” he continued, a reference to Mr. MacKay’s critique that the party wasn’t able to adequately address concerns about outgoing leader Andrew Scheer’s stand on social issues during the fall election campaign. Mr. Kenney – whose early public life was steeped in the politics of social conservatism – also said Mr. O’Toole will not only fight for a “fair deal” for the West, he can also win in Ontario suburbs and speaks French.

In Calgary Tuesday, Mr. MacKay joked about the criticism of his French, en français, even while making his pitch crafted especially for Albertans. The province’s economy has been hobbled by plentiful global oil supplies, low prices and a lack of pipeline capacity. Albertans believe the situation has been made much worse by federal policies and other provinces’ hostility to new pipeline projects.

Mr. MacKay spoke against the carbon tax and in favour of counterprotesters who removed a rail blockade last month. He said the world needs more Canadian oil and gas. He laid out a patriotic if bare-bones plan for the domestic oil industry.

“Stop buying Saudi oil. Stop buying Venezuelan oil. Stop buying Algerian oil. Let’s use Alberta oil.”

(Canadian refineries import more oil from the United States than from any other country – it accounts for more than 60 per cent of imports. About a fifth of the country’s oil imports come from Saudi Arabia; about 2 per cent from Algeria. Import sources can shift, but Canadian refineries don’t buy oil from Venezuela.)

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But Mr. MacKay also addressed Alberta’s sense of alienation, telling the audience to focus on the bonds between Canada’s regions and to “be patient.” He said social conservatives have a place in the Conservative Party – “100 per cent” – but “let’s talk about how we park those issues” to focus on the economy. He said that, as a Nova Scotian who understands Alberta as well as the rest of the country, he can beat the Liberals.

“We need policies on a whole range of issues that attract Canadians to this party – that push the tent pegs of the big blue tent out a lot wider,” he said. "Unless we can win in other parts of this country, we can’t form government. It’s that simple, really.”

In Alberta, Mr. MacKay is more likely to be supported by those who hail from what was once called the “progressive” branch of the Conservative family, including former senator Ron Ghitter, who was at Mr. MacKay’s Calgary event. Mr. Ghitter said in an interview that it’s important to him that Mr. MacKay is “a middle-of-the-road kind of politician.”

This week, Mr. O’Toole one-upped Mr. MacKay’s call to “Buy Canadian” when it comes to oil by tweeting a call for a foreign oil blockade. Middle-of-the-road is obviously not on the Alberta Premier’s wish list.

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