In what could only be seen as a crushing blow, Premier Ralph Klein received just 55 per cent support early Saturday in his bid to retain the leadership of Alberta's Conservative party.
There had been much speculation in recent days as to what numbers Mr. Klein needed to hold onto the helm of Canada's most prosperous province, but as the vote results trickled in, many Tory officials looked positively ashen.
Marisa Etmanski, Mr. Klein's official spokeswoman, struggled to hold back tears.
"He was disappointed," she said. "He was shocked and, I daresay, a little hurt."
Mr. KIein issued a brief statement saying that while the party had given him a vote of confidence, he would like a few days to decide his future.
"Give the results of this vote, I intend to meet with party officials and my staff to discuss my next step," he said. "I will do this as quickly as possible and announce a decision about my future shortly."
Indications were that Mr. Klein would keep a promise to meet with reporters later Saturday morning.
Many political observers had suggested Mr. Klein needed at least 75 per cent to avoid a serious challenge to his departure plans. He has traditionally enjoyed an approval rating of more than 90 per cent.
During his speech Friday night to about 1,200 delegates at the party's annual convention, Mr. Klein seemed to plead for his political future, asking the party faithful to let him retain his job for another two years.
"I ask you to give me - one final time - your endorsement to achieve what I have laid out for the duration of this mandate," Mr. Klein said.
"If you see fit to give me that support, I pledge to you that I will work as hard as I possibly can to bring continued honour to this party and continued prosperity to this province we love."
The speech was stunningly humble for a man who has led the party to four majority governments over 13 years - the most recent just 16 months ago - and made Alberta the country's only debt-free province.
But discontent has been brewing lately in the party, and many thought there was a chance Mr. Klein would announce plans to speed up his March 2008 departure date.
Throughout the Calgary convention centre, many people listened to his Hail Mary speech stonefaced with arms folded, applauding only at the end.
Mr. Klein made reference to the dissent in the party and those with leadership aspirations, taking aim at ousted cabinet minister Lyle Oberg, who was turfed from cabinet after saying the premier's two-year exit plan could harm the party and the province.
"(Albertans) didn't choose this party to govern so they could watch us bicker," said Mr. Klein. "They chose us to be honest, open, bold stewards of the province's future . . . The lustre of the shining star can only be darkened if the stewards they chose don't show leadership and vision and unity."
Mr. Oberg is just one of a half-dozen leadership contenders waiting in the wings. He has said the leadership race is distracting the party from key public policy issues. He said no one in cabinet even understands Mr. Klein's centrepiece Third Way strategy to mesh elements of public and private health care.
Mr. Klein tried to counter his critics who say he's become bored since eliminating Alberta's debt, disinterested with what many consider the best political job in Canada. He said he still has an inner fire and a list of things he wants to accomplish.
He said despite Alberta's wealth, there are still children who are hungry, families struggling to pay their bills and seniors who worry about getting a hospital bed when they need it.
"I do not intend to sit idle," he promised.
But even before the speech, there was friction as about 200 people protesting the Third Way health reforms caused a commotion outside the convention centre. Police and security guards moved quickly to lock the entrances to the building.
Mr. Klein also appealed to the delegates' sense of history, noting that the Tories have governed Alberta since 1971.
"I've been through five prime ministers and almost 50 premiers and territorial leaders of all political stripes," said the premier. "I urge all of you to let it be the other parties who wallow in negativity and cynicism."