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NDP leader Rachel Notley, left, and United Conservative Party leader Danielle Smith shake hands before a debate in Edmonton on May 18.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

An embattled United Conservative Party must regain control of its messaging as its enters the final leg of a bitter election campaign focused on the qualifications of party Leader Danielle Smith and her NDP rival, Rachel Notley, political experts say.

Alberta’s two main political parties are in a virtual dead heat ahead of the May 29 provincial vote. Polls have the New Democrats and the UCP trading control of battleground Calgary. Voters in the city, Alberta’s largest, are seen as the key to securing enough seats to form government.

A lacklustre debate between Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley on Thursday evening appeared unlikely to move the needle for voters. But Lars Hallstrom, a political scientist from the University of Lethbridge, said scandals that have engulfed the UCP campaign in recent days could compel some traditionally conservative voters to sit out the election, or push those who are undecided over the fence to the NDP.

“It’s not going to be good in the Calgary context of those more moderate or progressive conservatives, who look at the world through a bit of a risk-management lens, including economically,” he said. “You know, where does this person then, as leader of the province, ostensibly for the next four years, land us nationally and internationally, and is that where we want to be?”

Two UCP candidates created turmoil for the party this week. One, Myles McDougall, apologized for past derogatory comments he made about Black people. Another, Jennifer Johnson, expressed regret and embarrassment after an audio recording emerged of her comparing transgender children in schools to “poop in the cookie batch.”

Also clouding the Conservative campaign was a damning report from Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner, released Thursday, that found Ms. Smith had violated conflict-of-interest rules by trying to influence Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro on behalf of a street preacher. The man had been charged for his role in the 2022 anti-pandemic-mandate border blockade near Coutts, Alta.

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Taleesha Thorogood, a consultant with Crestview Strategy who worked on the 2019 UCP election campaign, said the report’s findings won’t make a significant difference to voters, but could help the NDP paint Ms. Smith as a poor leader.

“It does continue to feed into a narrative that the NDP have been trying to communicate around incompetence and distrust,” she said. “I think voters, you know, they want to be able to elect someone that they feel is competent and trustworthy, particularly if the ballot question ends up being on the issue of leadership.”

Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler concluded in her report that Ms. Smith’s actions represented a “threat to democracy.” Ms. Smith repeatedly mischaracterized the findings of the report during Thursday’s debate.

Ms. Thorogood said the compounding issues facing the UCP are making it difficult for Ms. Smith and her team to stay on message. But she said remaining focused is a challenge both parties will contend with as they continue to take jabs at each other’s records and candidates.

No matter the outcome, she said, Ms. Smith faces trouble ahead. The UCP Leader was asked after Thursday’s debate about potential challenges to her leadership, and whether she would commit to serving a full term.

Ms. Thorogood said a UCP loss would likely lead to a push within the party to oust Ms. Smith.

If the UCP wins, “there’s a big question mark there,” Ms. Thorogood said. “I think that there will end up just being an internal reckoning that has to happen around the direction of the party.”

During Thursday’s debate, the leaders argued over topics such as health care, affordability and the economy. But neither Ms. Notley nor Ms. Smith ruptured the credibility of the other. Ms. Thorogood said Ms. Notley did not appear to capitalize on the issues facing the UCP.

On CTV News Friday morning, Ms. Smith said Ms. Johnson could earn her way back into the UCP caucus if elected, keeping alive a controversy that dogged her party this week.

A day earlier, Ms. Smith had announced that Ms. Johnson would not be allowed to sit in the legislature under the UCP banner if she won her rural riding, Lacombe-Ponoka. The UCP Leader called Ms. Johnson’s comments “offensive and vile,” and said they did not represent her party’s values or those of Albertans.

Ms. Johnson has “a lot of work to do,” Ms. Smith said as she backtracked on Friday.

“I believe in redemption,” Ms. Smith added. “I do believe that people have the ability to have second chances.”