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Prime Minister Paul Martin scored a victory in his efforts to recruit Western candidates yesterday with Alberta Liberal Leader Ken Nicol's announcement that he will vie for a federal seat.

The news came as the Martin team was hit by word of former heritage minister Sheila Copps's flirtation with the NDP and Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray's decision not to run for the federal Liberals. Former NDP Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon has also decided not to re-enter politics under the Martin tent.

Mr. Nicol, who made his announcement yesterday in his home city of Lethbridge in southern Alberta, said Mr. Martin's efforts to embrace the West helped him decide to enter the race.

"When the Prime Minister says we've got to develop new ways to bring Western Canada in, I thought this is a challenge I want to be part of," he told supporters in a restaurant.

Mr. Nicol, who bears a strong resemblance to country singer Kenny Rogers, will run in the constituency of Lethbridge, which is a federal conservative stronghold now represented by Canadian Alliance MP Rick Casson.

While seeking election as a federal Liberal in southern Alberta is a tough row to hoe, the former University of Lethbridge professor of agricultural economics might have a chance based on his personal following in the city, University of Calgary political scientist David Taras said.

"It'll be one of the ridings to watch," he said.

Mr. Martin's southern Alberta organizer, Daryl Fridhandler, touted the candidacy of Mr. Nicol as a coup for the Liberal team.

"Getting Ken is a big story for Alberta and for the West," he said. "He certainly has proven electability. He will be a focal candidate in the southern half of Alberta."

The Liberals, which are hoping for breakthroughs in a few Southern Alberta ridings, are also searching for a star candidate who could secure a seat in downtown Calgary.

However, Prof. Taras said Mr. Nicol, with his low public profile in the rest of Alberta, is far from being a candidate with a near-certain shot at victory. "I would say he'd be the underdog. So it's not like he brings a lot to the national ticket. I would say the reverse, the national ticket brings a lot to him."

His profile is such that Premier Ralph Klein incorrectly called him "Ken Nicols" for a while after he took over as Liberal Leader after the party's disastrous results in the 2001 election under then-leader Nancy MacBeth.

And, said Prof. Taras, his record as party leader is "not great, not bad."

"I think he probably did a very good job raising important issues in the legislature, but in terms of bringing the party anywhere close to power, no. He just wasn't close," he said.

The 59-year-old candidate is known as a serious-minded, understated and conservative politician. He was first elected as a provincial Liberal in 1993. If he is successful in his federal bid, Mr. Nicol will leave his cash-strapped party in a pinch, Prof. Taras said.

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