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'What's the matter with Alberta?" frustrated Conservatives must be asking themselves.

Stephen Harper was in his home province this week, campaigning to hold seats that are under threat in Edmonton, while slagging Rachel Notley's NDP government.

"We don't know what surprises are in store," in the autumn budget that the provincial government is working on, the Conservative Leader told supporters, "but we know the NDP has already started raising taxes, because raising taxes is in the DNA of the NDP."

"We cannot afford to take this kind of NDP gamble with our entire country," Mr. Harper maintained.

This is not strength. This is weakness.

Conservatives in Alberta are confused and dismayed. The collapse in the price of oil battering the Alberta economy is made worse by a dry summer that will likely reduce crop yields. There has been real damage to the standard of living of ordinary Albertans, who last May took out their frustrations on the provincial Conservatives by electing an NDP government.

Now, the federal NDP are hoping to make gains in Edmonton, and to defeat the Conservatives nationally.

"This would be an unprecedented paradigm shift," observes Geoffrey Hale, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge. Centre-left governments in both Edmonton and Ottawa would upend the political world view of the province's Conservative base.

And so "to tell what Ralph Klein used to call 'severely normal' Albertans that the Prime Minister cares about them has become quite pressing," Prof. Hale said in an interview, "and employing [Calgary Southeast Conservative candidate] Jason Kenney is no longer enough." Hence the trip to Edmonton.

Of course, it's only August, and in a campaign this long, party leaders have the luxury of travelling to parts of the country they might have skipped during a typical five-week sprint.

But the fact that Conservative strategists are worried about losing seats in Alberta reveals how high a hill Mr. Harper must climb to win a fourth mandate.

The Conservatives are trailing the NDP in British Columbia, according to all polls. They will also lose seats in Atlantic Canada and can expect few, if any, gains in Quebec.

Victory, then, rests at a minimum on holding the rural Ontario base, the swath of suburban seats around Toronto, and all or almost all the seats in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the B.C. Interior.

But Alberta is changing, growing younger, accepting more migrants from other parts of Canada and other parts of the world.

There are progressive mayors in both Calgary and Edmonton, and a provincial NDP government.

Federally, the NDP is fighting hard in Edmonton and the Liberals have strong hopes in Calgary.

"It's just a sense," stresses Mel McMillan, economics professor emeritus at University of Alberta, "but I do get the sense that there is some potential for 'we're just going to kick the buggers out.'"

Because, under redistribution, Alberta gets six new seats (taking the count to 34), the Conservatives can afford to lose a few seats in Alberta and still prevail. Any further erosion, however, and they will probably lose the election.

The Conservative response is to rally its core supporters in Alberta by campaigning against the Notley government, just as Mr. Harper is hoping to hold on to his Ontario seats by campaigning against Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne.

One problem, though, is what while the Liberal government in Ontario is increasingly unpopular, the Notley government is so new, and the polls so few, that it's hard to get a sense of what voters in the province are thinking.

If things break at all in the Conservatives' favour, Alberta will recede as a battleground and Mr. Harper will be able to focus on suburban Ontario and B.C.'s Lower Mainland, where this election will be decided.

But if you see much more of Stephen Harper in Edmonton, that will tell just how worried the Conservatives are. And if he starts campaigning in Calgary, well …

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