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Jeff Callaway is photographed in downtown Calgary, in a March 11, 2015, file photo.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

The race to be leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party is down to three candidates.

Former Wildrose party president Jeff Callaway quit the race Wednesday to back fellow candidate Jason Kenney.

Callaway said Kenney's ideas on grassroots participation and improving the economy resonate with him, and he believes the former federal Conservative cabinet minister is the best person for the job.

"Going through the course of the campaign, I realized Jason Kenney and I share a lot of those same things in common," Callaway said in an interview. "So as it comes down to it, let's join forces and work together to build this party and get this province back on track.

"His track record and experience is unparalleled in this race, so it made the decision fairly simple."

Kenney and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean are considered front-runners in the race. A leader is to be selected by preferential ballot on Oct. 28.

Doug Schweitzer, a longtime conservative strategist, is also running.

The United Conservatives were created in July when Kenney's Progressive Conservatives and Jean's Wildrose party voted to join forces.

As a candidate, Callaway has been critical of Jean. He has accused him of losing touch with the grassroots and mismanaging caucus funds. The caucus has a $337,000 deficit.

"We need someone who is a proven winner that has that strong experience, and has that grassroots accountability," said Callaway.

Jean's campaign team suggested in a statement that Callaway was not a serious candidate but a Jean-bashing stalking horse for Kenney.

"Brian thanks Jeff for his past service to the Wildrose, but our campaign is not at all surprised with how this has played out," the statement read.

"Jeff's candidacy appeared to be an ineffective Kenney campaign stunt from the very beginning.

"Brian remains committed to campaigning on a positive vision of common-sense conservative ideas while rejecting the divisive and negative approach of the Kenney/Callaway ticket, which is a threat to the unity that so many people have worked for."

Jean has said the caucus deficit figures are misleading because numbers fluctuate over the year and he has always brought caucus funds in on budget.

Kenney welcomed Callaway to the fold.

"Jeff is a man of integrity, depth of character, and understands that unity will only work if we park the egos," Kenney said in a statement.

Callaway had put up $57,500 of the party's $95,000 entry fee, with the remainder due Friday for all candidates.

He said money was not a factor in his decision to withdraw.

Schweitzer announced Wednesday that he has paid the $95,000 in full.

"Some thought (the hefty fee) would keep our team out of the race and my name off the ballot — but it didn't," he said in a statement.

"This is now a three-horse race and our momentum continues to grow."

On Callaway's departure, he said: "I wish Jeff all the best in his future endeavours. As we start out, building this new party it's critical that we have a diverse set of voices and ideas coming to the table."

Alberta Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties have reached an agreement in principle to form a consolidated party. PC Leader Jason Kenney says he and Wildrose Leader Brian Jean will 'park' their egos in the leadership race.

The Canadian Press

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