As Rachel Notley enters a hall at the University of Calgary, hundreds of supporters jammed into the room erupt into a deafening applause. Alberta's NDP Leader is soon lost amid a sea of orange placards. Everyone wants to get close to her charismatic presence as she walks to the stage, a procession that is slowed by the swell of people in her path hoping for a picture or a handshake.
This is what a political phenomenon looks like.
With 24 hours to go before Election Day, the story of the campaign is the mere possibility that Ms. Notley and her New Democrats could emerge as the David that finally slays the Progressive Conservative Goliath. The latest polls all point to this scenario and yet it still remains difficult for many to picture.
The New Democrats' centre of strength has always been the capital of Edmonton. And no one seems to dispute the notion that the party could win all 19 ridings in the city. (Although it's not likely.) It gets tougher for the NDP in rural Alberta, which has always skewed more conservative. But there is certainly a chance it will pick up a few seats at the expense of Wildrose or the PCs. This leaves Calgary as the key battleground. In 2012, the Tories took 20 of the 25 ridings. One would think that the NDP would have to take almost that many this time around to form a majority.
And yet, even a year ago, few could have imagined the scene at the Calgary university this weekend, where Ms. Notley fired up the crowd with a well-worn partisan speech that underscored the NDP's traditional rallying points – more dollars for education and health care – while promising to make corporations pay more taxes to help balance the budget and not just working stiffs.
In the crowd, Bob Hawkesworth marvelled at Ms. Notley's ability to transfix her audience without a note to rely on. It is the gift of a natural-born politician, which he believes Ms. Notley is. Mr. Hawkesworth has a link to this moment. He was part of the NDP breakthrough in Alberta in 1986 when it won 16 seats and formed the official Opposition. He defeated Jim Prentice in that campaign. But the NDP was never able to sustain that success and eventually the province fell under the thrall of Ralph Klein, who was the last premier in the province with anything resembling a common touch with the electorate.
Ms. Notley has that in spades.
"Issues and ideology are important," Mr. Hawkesworth says, "but I think it's really all about a trust factor. To a lot of voters it's what they feel in their gut. Can they trust the person they're hearing, what they're saying, and can they identify with that person. And when there is a real connection you see what we're seeing now."
There are echoes here of the 2011 federal election, when Jack Layton's captivating presence on the campaign trail helped lead his party to a historic breakthrough. We could be seeing the same thing here. There are large crowds wherever Ms. Notley appears. She has emerged as a political rock star, one whose quick wit, natural speaking style and telegenic appeal all help form a dynamic and formidable package.
In an interview after her speech, Ms. Notley admitted to having turned her attention to the possibility of forming government. She has had transition discussions and also has begun to think about the makeup of an NDP cabinet. But then she quickly says: "But I don't get too lost in that stuff. My focus is the here and now."
When she is asked to explain what we are witnessing, she chuckles. She gets asked that question often. Many are surprised, but she is not. "There is a national urban myth about the values of Albertans," she says. "We are a young province, a very diverse province. We are very progressive and forward-looking on a lot of issues, more so than a lot of other parts of the country."
Ms. Notley believes the scandal-riddled reign of former Tory premier Alison Redford finally "shook people loose from their earlier voting patterns." It had always been a matter of time, she insists, before people started to connect their vote with what they believed in as opposed to voting a certain way because that's just what people in Alberta did.
Back at the university, Ms. Notley is having fun skewering her political opponents. Far from seeming tired at the end of a long, arduous campaign, she appears fresh and energized by the reception she gets everywhere she goes. Even if the NDP doesn't form government, Ms. Notley will undoubtedly lead her party to a place it's never been before.
"It's springtime in Alberta, my friends," Ms. Notley tells the university crowd. "And spring is a time of a renewal, a time for change."