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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, seen riding in the 2012 Calgary Stampede parade, is still a very popular politician, but faces increasing criticism in economic downturn.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Naheed Nenshi enjoys rock-star status in Canadian politics. The Calgary mayor is recognized around the country, and even internationally. He has more than 365,000 Twitter followers. And he regularly ranks highly on most-popular-mayor lists.

So why is he a wee bit worried as he pursues his third term in office?

Calgarians are an uneasy lot right now – many are worried about an unsettled economy, empty office towers downtown and whether new oil and natural gas pipelines will be built. Mr. Nenshi says he's often on the receiving end of complaints about the march to a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Alberta's carbon levy, and increased taxes for the wealthy – even though they are provincial, not municipal, decisions.

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"This is the first election that people will be having since we've really been in the throes of this economic downturn," Mr. Nenshi, 45, says in an interview.

"Of course people are concerned."

The economy might not be the only headwind Mr. Nenshi faces as he campaigns for the Oct. 16 municipal election day. Besides small-c conservative discontent with the left-of-centre parties in provincial and federal office, there's the mayor's spotty record of victories on city council, the perception that he should be more fiscally conservative, and irritation in some quarters with Mr. Nenshi's shoot-from-the-hip style.

Perhaps most worryingly for Mr. Nenshi, there is serious talk about high-profile Conservative MP Michelle Rempel joining council member Andre Chabot and a handful of other candidates in the mayoral race against Mr. Nenshi. The mayor and the MP for Calgary Nose Hill have a history of sparring – most recently on the issue of the $4.65-billion price and reduced span of the LRT Green Line. Ms. Rempel is only 37, savvy with both new and old forms of media, and battles for same-sex marriage and women's rights while also positioning herself as a fiscal hawk and Alberta defender. Last year she mulled, but decided against, a run for leadership of the federal Conservatives.

Ms. Rempel is not speaking on her intentions – she said she's focused on her party's leadership vote this weekend – but prominent conservatives are urging her to run for the mayor's chair. She is not ruling it out. If Ms. Rempel enters the race, she comes armed with voter lists, and she will have near-immediate access to the Conservative Party's best fundraisers and political mechanics, even if her entrance to the party is later than others'.

"I'm 100 per cent encouraging her to run," says Ken Boessenkool, a Calgary-based public affairs consultant and conservative strategist.

There are reasons why political tire-kickers might be surveying the Calgary municipal scene. A poll from Mainstreet Research last month found Mr. Nenshi's approval rating down to 52 per cent, compared with 65 per cent in January. The poll has a margin of error of 3.44 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. It's just one poll and several months before the election, but it underscores Mr. Boessenkool's and other conservatives' belief that the mayor is politically vulnerable.

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"His instincts are toward people who ride bikes, and not toward people who drive cars," Mr. Boessenkool says.

"That's not to say we should have more cars than bikes – I'm just saying his voter pool is not the traditional, more conservative voter pool."

Mr. Chabot, a long-serving, details-focused Calgary council member who has thrown his hat in to challenge Mr. Nenshi in October, says Mr. Nenshi's multiyear spending plans on massive new infrastructure projects don't recognize that $100-a-barrel oil is not coming back, and the city faces a more modest future reality. He said the mayor is a master at promoting causes such as public transit or inner-city densification, but often discourages presenters at council with a different point of view – including those who believe basement or secondary suites should be kept out of some single-family city neighbourhoods.

"The mayor can be so insulting and condescending," Mr. Chabot says.

But anyone who takes on Mr. Nenshi is still facing a formidable political force. It was just seven years ago that Mr. Nenshi surprised many when, as the underdog candidate, he won Calgary's municipal election. With his win came instant national fame for his campaign's adept use of social media, his sweep with young Calgarians who often don't vote, and for being the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city – one often stereotyped as uniformly white and conservative.

Mr. Nenshi still has much of the sheen that first got him elected, including his spry, funny, wonkish approach to politics. Many still vividly remember Mr. Nenshi's apt handling of the 2013 flood, including his near around-the-clock appearances and visits to citizens and city workers.

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Mount Royal University political analyst David Taras said if Ms. Rempel decided to enter the contest, she would ensure "an incredible race," especially given the "seething anger" in Calgary over the economy and a still-high unemployment rate. But Mr. Chabot, as a well-known councillor, would also steal some of the thunder from any other serious challenger.

"He's strong enough to really worry someone coming in against Nenshi," Prof. Taras said.

There is also another element in the race: a rising tide of anger against mainstream politics, on full display by the election of President Donald Trump in the U.S. Mr. Nenshi, unprompted this week, said he's growing increasingly concerned about the rise of extreme voices – including comments regarding race and religion on social media.

"If there is someone out there who's offering a really compelling vision for the future of the city, that is different than mine … that's great," he says.

"That said, if campaigns are based only on, 'I don't much like the mayor. He's kind of funny-looking, I don't like the way he talks, he's arrogant' – or some of this nasty alt-right stuff – well, then we're going to call that out."

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