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Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean walks through the crowd after being declared the official opposition in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Tuesday May 5, 2015.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean has turned the electoral tables on his former federal colleague Jim Prentice, bringing his party back from a near-death experience to win official opposition status to the New Democratic Party's majority government.

Elected leader just 10 days before the provincial campaign began, Mr. Jean led his party back to respectability to become the leading standard-bearer for the province's right-leaning voters.

Less than five months ago, Mr. Prentice appeared to have destroyed Wildrose with the defection by then-leader Danielle Smith and eight of her caucus colleagues to his governing Progressive Conservatives.

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On Tuesday night, Mr. Jean and Wildrose won vindication. With some polls still to be counted, Wildrose was leading or had won in 21 seats, compared with just 10 for the Progressive Conservatives. The party held just five seats when the campaign began.

In addressing supporters at Fort McMurray's Sawridge Hotel , Mr. Jean noted his party was being counted out just a few months ago. "We've seen a complete change in Alberta," he said. "And Wildrose proved them wrong.

"We have prospered mightily; we have done amazing things."

While supporters were stunned by the size of the NDP victory, they clearly savoured their party's besting of the Progressive Conservatives, cheering wildly each time Wildrose surged ahead in the early seesawing race for second place and official opposition status.

"We wanted to see Brian Jean as premier," said Kim Farwell, an oil company employee who sported an "I (Heart) Oil Sands" sweater. "That isn't happening but we needed a strong voice in the legislature and it will be great to be the official opposition."

Mr. Jean, a former member of Parliament from Fort McMurray, served with Mr. Prentice when he was a cabinet minister in the Harper government until November, 2010. Mr. Jean resigned his seat last year, citing the need to spend more time with his family.

The 52-year-old lawyer and businessman has lived in Fort McMurray since moving here with his family as a boy. He entered the race to replace Ms. Smith just a month before the leadership vote. At that point, he acknowledged he didn't think the Wildrose could win the anticipated election – but he clearly didn't think it would be the NDP he'd be chasing.

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Mr. Jean entered the leadership contest saying he was motivated in part by his experience with Alberta's "broken" public health system. His son, Michael, spent months in hospital with an undiagnosed illness, only to die suddenly just days before the Wildrose leadership vote in late March.

The new opposition leader had a simple campaign strategy – offer two clear priorities in low taxes and improving health care, and prevent the "bozo eruptions," as Ms. Smith called them, that dogged his predecessor's 2012 campaign.

He acted quickly and decisively when a Wildrose candidate was heard on a live microphone jokingly talking about moving "brown people" to the front of a group photograph. Mr. Jean demanded and received the candidate's resignation.

That contrasts with Ms. Smith's decision in 2012 to let stand a candidate who had warned gay people they faced eternal hellfire. Mr. Jean reinforced the notion that Wildrose would not be a party of intolerance but expressed essentially libertarian views toward homosexuality – that what people did in their private lives was none of his business.

Mr. Jean also sought to portray himself as the one true conservative in the race, portraying Mr. Prentice and NDP Leader Rachel Notley as offering "a coalition for higher taxes."

His Wildrose Party actually led the polls in the early days of the campaign, but he hit a wall at the televised debate. He appeared wooden and scripted, while Ms. Notley emerged as a bright, personable and – perhaps most importantly – reasonable alternative to Mr. Prentice.

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Polls showed Albertans overwhelmingly wanted to turf the Tories.

"The debate really mattered," said pollster Quito Maggi, president of Mainstreet Technologies. "If one opposition leader could come out and show voters they were a viable alternative, it would turn the election. Rachel Notley did that."

In the last weeks of the campaign, Wildrose tailed off as the NDP juggernaut rolled. But Mr. Jean has brought his party a long way from the wreckage of December when many believed Ms. Smith had essentially killed it.

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