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'Look at my fingernails!" the man who wants Ralph Klein's job says.

"They're short! They're freshly clipped! I'm not that dangerous!" In his other hand, fingernails also freshly clipped, he holds an editorial cartoon from the Calgary Herald. It is a caricature of the Alberta Premier, a desperate look on his face.

"Randy Thorsteinson," the cartoon Klein is saying, "has the fangs of a cobra and one bloodshot eye in the middle of his forehead. He has horns and stands eight foot tall at his hairy shoulders. Human skin hangs from his brittle four-inch fingernails that search and claw in the dark for anything he can devour! Ooooo . . . Boo!"

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Randy Thorsteinson, who is round in girth, hair and glasses and decidedly less than eight feet tall, chuckles with delight.

Recognition like this you cannot buy -- not when you are leader of a party that did not exist last election, not when you have never won political office yourself, and most assuredly not when people keep saying that Premier Ralph Klein has nothing to fear from anyone as he sleepwalks toward a fourth straight victory on Nov. 22.

But something about Randy Thorsteinson has certainly gotten under Klein's skin, if not his nails. The Premier has called the cherubic Alberta Alliance Leader "scary" and "very extreme." The monster Randy Thorsteinson that Klein sees would erect a firewall about the province, withdraw from federal programs, have Alberta collect its own taxes, set up its own police force -- and ultimately separate from Canada.

"We're not separatists," says the real Randy Thorsteinson. "We love Canada." Klein, however, has not relented. He has tagged the Alliance the "extreme right wing" in this, the most conservative of provinces. He has accused the upstart party of having a hidden agenda. And he has even made it personal, passing comment on this roly-poly man with the constant smile.

"I don't like him as a person," Klein told reporters.

"He's just trying to demonize us," grins Thorsteinson.

What the Alliance is trying to do to Klein is something quite different. The party is asking the faithful -- former Reformers, former federal Alliance, federal Conservatives and disenchanted provincial Tories -- to look at Klein in a new, far more critical way.

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It launched a "Blame Ralph" campaign that blames Klein for everything from hospital lineups to soaring car insurance. It even uses small red cards to sign up new members and volunteers that include, on the back, a small survey.

"I blame Ralph for (check all that apply): Betraying Stephen Harper. Record-high energy prices. $700-million tax hike. Gretzky being traded to the Kings. . ."

"Hey," Thorsteinson chuckles. "You have a little fun in politics, too."

Thorsteinson is a father of eight and a converted Mormon, as well as an original Reform backroom worker. He served as campaign chair for Stephen Harper's successful run at the Alliance leadership, and he considers himself a "policy wonk" whose greatest failure was in not talking former Reform leader Preston Manning into forming a provincial party.

Thorsteinson tried on his own a while back, taking over the virtually defunct Social Credit Party and hoping, unsuccessfully, to bring back the glory years of Ernest Manning.

But then, increasingly fed up with what he saw as the arrogance and ineptitude of the Klein government, he set out to organize the disenchanted into a new provincial party called Alberta Alliance. At the founding convention, he was the only candidate for leader and won by acclamation.

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"I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or not," he said at the time.

What charged this new party heading into this election was Klein's role in the June federal campaign, when the Premier's ramblings on medicare became a major issue.

"There's no question in my mind," says Thorsteinson, "that Ralph Klein cost Stephen Harper the election." Some others appear to agree. A Republican polling firm delivered numbers that suggest the Alliance, which has announced a full slate of 83 candidates, will be something of a force.

The party's most radical stance is to get non-renewable resources removed from the federal equalization mix, thereby returning billions to Alberta to be used for health, education and services to seniors.

The Alliance would also insist that only provinces that spend less per capita than the national average would be allowed to receive equalization payments.

The scheme would hardly be popular elsewhere -- the party calculates have-not provinces in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Manitoba would lose $44 to $69 per person -- but it may strike a chord in Alberta, which has been getting nothing from the equalization scheme for decades.

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Thorsteinson says he's not so naive as to think his new party can form the government, but he does think he has an outside chance of becoming the next Official Opposition.

"We're going to win seats," vows the leader with the freshly clipped fingernails.

"Is it 5, 15, 45? I have no idea.

"It will all depend on the people's desire for change."

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

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