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Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft stood outside a historic church in downtown Calgary this week preaching his party's plan to end homelessness in the city.

Here, and across the province, the number of people living on the street is rising, while the availability of affordable housing is shrinking in a boom-time economy.

Housing has become a hot-button political issue.

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From a pulpit, Mr. Taft fielded questions from a woman who said she can't scrape together rent, shook hands with a supporter who happened to be passing by and then served up a rousing proclamation in the hopes of making a little history of his own.

"We think we can make a real breakthrough in Calgary," he said, recognizing it's tough to form a government without owning the province's largest city.

"We think, come the day after the next election, people are going to wake up and see that Calgary's a Liberal city," he said to a smattering of applause.

In the not-so-distant past, such a pronouncement would have been laughable in this true-blue Tory city, home of the oil giants that drive the country's economy. It was Edmonton - derisively dubbed Redmonton - that was considered most vulnerable for Tories. But now, as Albertans prepare to head to the polls March 3 to decide whether to extend 37 years of Progressive Conservative rule, Calgary finally looks ripe to turn Liberal red.

"We know that a lot of people in Calgary are disaffected from the Conservatives," said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal College, citing polls that show the city is home to a large number of undecided voters and those who think it's time for a change.

"There are a lot of people in Calgary that used to vote Conservative because of Ralph Klein. Ralph Klein's not here any more," he said.

When Mr. Klein, the popular former Calgary mayor turned popular Tory leader and premier, left politics, Ed Stelmach surprised many 14 months ago by winning the party's leadership. It was a victory attributed to the rural voters from northern Alberta who turned out in droves to support him, while Mr. Stelmach's rivals settled for the backing of southern voters and those in urban ridings.

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Now, the ex-farmer from east of Edmonton has much to lose on March 3 - and nowhere is that more apparent than in Calgary, where 23 seats are up for grabs. During the 2004 campaign, the Tories lost three of those seats to Liberals, a sign of Mr. Klein's waning popularity. Last June, the Liberals took another one by winning the by-election in, of all places, Mr. Klein's old riding. It was a win Tories attributed to low turnout among their supporters on a warm summer day, but something some observers said was evidence of the city's discontent with the Conservatives.

Since then, five Tory MLAs in Calgary have announced their retirement, citing personal reasons, which Mr. Stelmach spun as part of the party renewal process, but which the opposition described as evidence of unhappiness within the regime.

Party infighting has also plagued two Calgary ridings, in both cases blamed on the heavy-handedness of Mr. Stelmach in rejecting locally nominated candidates, spurring one to announce Thursday that he would file a human-rights complaint against the leader and the party. At the same time, the Liberals have recruited a slate of high-profile candidates, including former Glenbow Museum head Mike Robinson, former separate school board chair Cathie Williams and economist Glen Flanagan.

The Liberals have also unveiled their "Calgary agenda," which includes doing more to protect the city's water supply, eliminating homelessness, rejigging the royalty scheme to help struggling gas producers and increasing municipal funding to hire more police officers and improve public transit.

The Tories, meanwhile, haven't outlined a city-specific policy, but during the campaign Mr. Stelmach has pointed to his party's commitment to build new schools in the city, fund a new hospital, increase the number of affordable housing spaces and support further improvements to municipal infrastructure. It's not that much different from what the Liberals are talking about, yet Mr. Stelmach still has an image problem in this city.

His rise to the premier's office came at the expense of Jim Dinning, a Calgary businessman who had been the party's leader-in-waiting for years and enjoyed the support of corporate Calgary and most of MLAs sitting under Mr. Klein.

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In naming his first cabinet, Mr. Stelmach rewarded his supporters in the leadership race, which left Calgary with three ministers (down from eight) and rural Alberta controlling three-quarters of the 18 portfolios. Mr. Stelmach defended the decision, but soon after the humiliating by-election defeat in Mr. Klein's riding, he added three new positions to cabinet, two of which were to be held by MLAs from Calgary, and he named another Calgary minister deputy premier.

His first budget, which was widely considered spendthrift, struck Calgarians as stingy, sparking a major tiff with Mayor Dave Bronconnier. The two have apparently made up after Mr. Stelmach's recent visit to deliver a game-show-sized cheque with the additional funding the mayor had asked for. But in Edmonton, Mayor Stephen Mandel is still fuming about the province's new infrastructure formula that he says now shortchanges his city.

Memories here run long. "First impressions mean an awful lot," Prof. Brownsey said. "Stelmach was elected on somewhat of an anti-Calgary campaign and that image has stuck."

By the numbers

23 Number of Calgary ridings 5 Number of Tory Calgary MLAs not seeking re-election4 Number of seats currently held by Liberal Party50 Percentage of vote share Tories received here in 200432 Percentage the Liberals received 7 Percentage won by Alberta

Alliance0 Number of Calgary seats the

Liberals won in 20013 Number of seats Liberals won in 1993

Compiled by Katherine O'Neill

CORRECTION

Economist Greg Flanagan is running in the Alberta election as a Liberal candidate in Calgary. Incorrect information appeared Saturday.

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