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Jason Kenney is considered a front-runner to lead Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives at a leadership convention this weekend.

The former federal cabinet minister is expected to win the leadership of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives. And then the real fight starts, writes Justin Giovannetti

Jason Kenney is widely expected to win the leadership of Alberta's storied Progressive Conservative Party on March 18. That will be the easy part. The tougher fight starts the next day as the former federal cabinet minister faces his promise to unite the province's long-quarreling right wing.

While Mr. Kenney has dominated the PC leadership race, his nine-month battle to take over the party has been divisive, and raised fears that, rather than uniting Albertans in opposition to NDP Premier Rachel Notley, his brand of far-right politics could split the Tories in half.

Mr. Kenney has campaigned on little else but seeking a mandate to scrap the once powerful PC brand and merge it with Alberta's Official Opposition Wildrose Party. In recent weeks, he has said he would focus on his merger plan rather than pursuing a seat in the legislature if he wins the leadership.

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The leadership vote comes near the two-year mark for Ms. Notley and her party. After sweeping PC premier Jim Prentice from power and reducing his party to third place, Ms. Notley's New Democrats have set their sights on undoing nearly 80 years of right-wing government in Alberta. With a far-reaching climate plan and carbon tax, a ban on corporate and union donations, and billions of dollars in deficit spending on health and education, the NDP has "governed the hell out of the province," one of Ms. Notley's lieutenants joked during a cabinet retreat in January.

With the self-described socialists holding power over his home province, Mr. Kenney has been seeing red. Even though the Alberta economy is finally growing out of a deep recession, the perceived failures of Ms. Notley's government in combatting the downturn have been a powerful motivator for conservatives who want to see her removed from office in 2019.

"I hope to be the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in a few weeks and to spend more time here, presenting an alternative to the high-tax, job-killing NDP government, Mr. Kenney said in early March while attending the NDP's third Speech from the Throne. "I'm trying to unite Albertans to defeat this government."

Attendees wait for the doors to open at the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership convention in Calgary on Friday, March 17, 2017.

For the second time in just under three years, Alberta's Tories will turn to a former high-powered minister from Ottawa for salvation. Mr. Prentice was one of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's most trusted ministers in government before he left to become a banking executive. After 19 years in Ottawa, it is now Mr. Kenney's turn.

The PC leadership race has been a bruising contest. Many Tories now identify themselves with one of two wings of the party: those who want renewal and those who want to merge with the more right-wing Wildrose. Mr. Kenney has been the only candidate in favour of merging – some of his opponents have described him as a Wildrose candidate looking to take over the PCs.

Mr. Kenney, a former immigration and defence minister, has stepped on toes during the race. He was fined by the party for flouting campaigning rules, including setting up a hospitality suite near a polling station during delegate selection.

Three of the six candidates have dropped out of the race. MLA Sandra Jansen said she was harassed and attacked for supporting women's rights. She pointed the finger at Mr. Kenney's supporters, and crossed the floor a few weeks later to join the NDP.

Former MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans said the party was not open to a centrist's voice any more. Former minister Stephen Khan cited racism and Islamophobia for his exit, also blaming Mr. Kenney's supporters.

The party's new leader will be elected at a delegated convention in Calgary. Over three months, PC members gathered in the province's 87 ridings and elected 15 delegates and alternates to represent them. Mr. Kenney's team says he has won about 80 per cent of those delegates. There will also be hundreds more super delegates, which includes MLAs and past party leaders. More than 1,500 delegates could vote at the leadership convention this weekend.

Some of Mr. Kenney's opponents hope he could be defeated on the convention floor, although even they admit this is a long shot. Their best option now is that Kenney supporters elected as delegates do not show up and he wins only a plurality of delegates – an outcome that would weaken his bargaining position to merge the party out of existence.

A senior PC official confirmed that many of Mr. Kenney's delegates were surprised to learn they would have to get to the convention in Calgary to cast a ballot. A person from northern Alberta could face substantial travel, accommodation and convention costs. Some delegates have dropped out, the official confirmed, and the alternates selected to replace them are not as friendly to Mr. Kenney.

"It would be shocking if Mr. Kenney doesn't win it, but it's hard to tell exactly who is coming," the PC official said

Mr. Kenney would inherit a party that has little money in the bank and shattered morale after its 44 years in government came to an end. Insiders say an effort to rebuild the PC base has been put on pause due to Mr. Kenney's promise to scrap the party that was once led by Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein.

The PC party has long been a coalition of fiscal conservatives and social progressives, which was viewed as the recipe needed to win in Alberta. Mr. Kenney has communicated socially conservative views during the campaign that have made some Tories uncomfortable. Officials told The Globe and Mail that some in the party have begun working on a Plan B if Mr. Kenney wins, in which many of the social progressives would leave.

While Mr. Kenney wants to unite the right, those leaving would want to unite the middle ground between the right-wing and Ms. Notley. "You think unite-the-right is going to go smoothly? That'll end up in court. The centre thinks that if it can get this act together and get a leader elected, it can make inroads," the official said.

The riding of Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills had been a PC seat for nearly two decades until 2012, when it was lost to the Wildrose. The vast riding spans an area from large oil sands facilities south of Fort McMurray to farmland east of Edmonton; it is the kind of rural battleground where Mr. Kenney's pledge to unite the right will be tested.

Allen Preston, a farmer who also owns an oil-delivery business, is the president of the local PC constituency association. He says conservatives in the riding want good government, no matter which party banner a candidate carries.

"However, my feeling is that this race is a lot closer than people think. You wouldn't think so from social media, something Mr. Kenney's people are pretty good at, but what we hear is a contest that is a lot closer," Mr. Preston said.

He wants the race to avoid any controversy: "The PC party can't afford any more black eyes," he said.

Jason Kenney chats with Garth Shewchuk, left, while having lunch at the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner in Calgary in December, 2016.

Some of the party's staff members in the legislature told The Globe they are "mentally packing their boxes" and preparing to be fired. They fear that Mr. Kenney and some of his supporters have a list of staffers who are not considered conservative enough. The PC official confirmed that "morale is terrible" among the party's staff.

Ric McIver, the party's interim leader, said the morale is no different than it would be in any other leadership race. "Every leadership is troubling to the staff, no matter what party or province. A new leader brings change and the system you depend on for your employment can change," he said.

Mr. McIver has also stirred controversy during the leadership race. Hours after the PC board of directors banned one of Mr. Kenney's campaign organizers, Alan Hallman, from party functions for a year over comments he made that contravened harassment rules, Mr. McIver tweeted a picture of himself with a smiling Mr. Hallman. Mr. McIver told The Globe he thought the ban was unfair.

The pledge to unite Alberta conservatives could backfire for Mr. Kenney. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean unveiled his own ambitious plan in late January to merge the two parties by the end of the year. Recent polls indicate that Mr. Jean, a relative unknown outside Alberta, would beat Mr. Kenney to lead a united party.

Mr. Jean has been touring Alberta in recent weeks, drawing hundreds of people to rallies in small towns. Wildrose officials say their leader can draw larger crowds than Mr. Kenney, despite not being in the campaign. They say it is a taste of what could come if Mr. Kenney faces Mr. Jean for the leadership of a united Alberta conservative party.

"Jason's team has been so negative, so rough on their opponents, that some people view this as, 'Brian Jean isn't someone who has treated me like garbage, maybe I'll go out and cheer for him,'" a senior Wildrose official told The Globe.

Hal Danchilla, a long-time conservative organizer and friend of Mr. Kenney, defended the campaign. While he had no formal role in it, Mr. Danchilla is a staunch supporter.

"The campaign is a referendum on the future. I think it's the most transparent campaign I've seen during my time in politics. What I find amazing, being a long-time party member, is that Jason was able to capture the imagination and desire of party members," Mr. Danchilla said. "People didn't come out to vote against him in the same kind of numbers who came out to vote for him. It's that simple."

The Wildrose's 22-member caucus has divisions. A small number support Mr. Kenney's plan, some refuse to discuss any merger with the PC machine that their party broke away from a decade ago, while most support Mr. Jean, according to the party's whip, Jason Nixon. "Brian came forward and saved the party when it was in the most dire straits in its history. People in our community have nothing but respect for him," Mr. Nixon said.

Attendees wait for the doors to open at the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership convention in Calgary on Friday, March 17, 2017.

The previous Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith, crossed the floor with eight MLAs to join Mr. Prentice's Tory caucus only days before Christmas in 2014. The defection, sold as a merger by Ms. Smith and Mr. Prentice, was an unprecedented move in Canadian political history.

The party kept its official opposition status, but was reduced to five seats, matching the hapless Liberals. A month before the election of May, 2015, the Wildrose picked a new leader while it was in disarray. Mr. Jean had been a federal Conservative backbencher who had served a decade in Ottawa representing Fort McMurray when he took over a leadership few wanted. With little time to prepare, he led the party to its biggest seat haul ever as the PCs collapsed.

As Ms. Notley's popularity has plummeted over the past two years, Mr. Jean's support has increased with almost every poll, according to Janet Brown, an independent pollster based in Calgary.

"The good polling shows that Brian Jean is very popular as leader of the Opposition and if you compare him to Jason Kenney, the two are not only neck-and-neck, but Mr. Jean often comes out ahead in familiarity and popularity," according to Ms. Brown. "People don't realize how popular he's become."

Mr. Jean's support had been increasing, albeit slowly, before the wildfires that swept through Fort McMurray a year ago. His deft performance during the emergency, in which his own home was destroyed, put Mr. Jean in the public eye and led to a substantial bump in popularity that has not waned.

"There's this assumption that Jason Kenney will be well-known and well-liked by Albertans. The people around Jim Prentice made the same assumption. But being a federal cabinet minister doesn't seem to make you as well known in your home province as you think it does," she said.