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Rachel Notley says her Alberta New Democrats are not running for second place in the election called on Tuesday for May 5. But everyone knows the NDP Leader would be thrilled to be runner-up and form the Official Opposition in the province for the first time since the early 1990s.

Despite recent polls showing the decimated Wildrose Party breathing down the neck of the governing Progressive Conservatives, Ms. Notley and her New Democrats may emerge as the surprise story of the campaign. Ms. Notley is certainly as compelling a leader as there is in this race.

She took the leadership last fall. It is a job she seemed destined to hold. Her father, Grant Notley, led the party from 1968 to 1984, the year he was killed in a plane crash. All the arduous work he put in establishing the party's profile paid off two years after his death, when the NDP won 16 seats and formed the Official Opposition.

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Today, the NDP Leader likes to recall that, when she was growing up, her mother, Sandra, would read her the story of Robin Hood and explain that the legendary English outlaw's philosophy of taking from the rich to feed the poor was shared by Rachel's politician father. Mr. Notley was his daughter's role model from a young age.

Ms. Notley is imbued with his political orthodoxy. She was extremely critical, for instance, of the budget the governing Tories tabled last month, particularly the decision to exempt corporations from the tax increases that were introduced. The complaint has resonated with a broad swath of the Alberta public, if recent polls are to be believed. Few think it is fair that the $7-billion budgetary hole caused by the oil crisis is mostly being filled by working stiffs.

Not surprisingly, the NDP Leader does not subscribe to the conservative tenet that low corporate taxes help create employment. She believes a range of factors contribute to job creation and a healthy investment climate, and is not convinced an increase of 1 or 2 per cent in the province's corporate tax regime would plunge Alberta into recession.

Nor does she feel a hike in oil royalty revenues should be off the table. The NDP would establish an independent commission to evaluate the natural-resource sector and make recommendations on everything from royalty rates to upgrading raw resources in the province. The commission would be required to report annually on the returns Albertans were getting from royalties and the proportion of resources being processed in the province.

In many respects, it is standard NDP fare, and the kind of policy menu that makes those residing in the oil and gas towers of downtown Calgary sweat profusely. Before the election was called, the party also asked the government to rescind the health-care premium introduced in the budget and to restore cuts to various programs and services. For the NDP, debt is not the four-letter word that it is for the PC and Wildrose parties.

No one honestly believes the outcome of this election is in doubt. The PCs' war chest overflows with bullion, while the New Democrats have a fraction of what their enemies possess. What they do have is an enthusiastic army of volunteers committed to knocking on thousands of doors over the course of the 28-day campaign.

Edmonton remains the New Democrats' base of support, and it is almost certain the party will expand on the four seats it had in the legislature upon dissolution on Monday. Where it finally ends up no one knows, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that 16 is a number it could reach again, along with the Official Opposition designation. The party is hoping to take advantage of some vote-splitting between Wildrose and the Conservatives and to exploit the sorry condition of the provincial Liberals.

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Ms. Notley is bright and charismatic and seems poised to take advantage of a grumpy electorate. In many ways, she was groomed for this moment.

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