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alberta election

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith gets off her campaign bus as she makes a stop in Vulcan, Alta., Friday, April 6, 2012. Albertans go to the polls on April 23.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Heading into a long weekend that marks the midpoint of a closely fought election campaign, Alberta's political parties find themselves divided over hot-button issues such as private health care, free speech and religious rights.

The issues have been raised as Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith finds herself, for the first time in her political career, in unfamiliar territory ahead of the pack and on track for a majority.

However, questions she dismisses as "fear mongering" have thrust divisive social issues into the spotlight as the three other major parties move to cast the conservative Wildrose agenda as out of step with mainstream Alberta in hopes of catching up.

One such issue has been "conscience rights," which allow a professional to refuse a service based on religious or other beliefs – for instance, a doctor refusing to prescribe birth control. Wildrose backs the rights, but would send such cases to the courts; other parties oppose the notion.

Another is private heath care. A Wildrose government would bring in a "patient wait time guarantee," allowing and paying for people on certain waiting lists to, after a set waiting period, have procedures done out of province or at a private clinics. The Progressive Conservatives, too, speak of "publicly funded" care, raising questions about who provides it.

Finally, Wildrose was forced to send out a statement late Thursday amid questions of whether it would consider delisting abortion from funding, something the party "has absolutely no intentions" of doing.

Amid it all, Ms. Smith finds herself under fire from all sides. NDP Leader Brian Mason warned public health care was "under attack." Liberal Leader Raj Sherman called conscience rights a "repugnant and antiquated notion," while Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford said they "frightened" her.

"I thought about the fact that I was absolutely amazed that we were having this conversation in Alberta," Ms. Redford said.

It's all electioneering, Ms. Smith says, or a well-proven political strategy of "Eastern Canada and Eastern Canadian critics" intent on derailing conservative parties.

"Typical," Ms. Smith (who has declined to say whether she personally backs conscience rights) told reporters in Calgary on Thursday. "It's typical of liberal politicians to demonize a conservative party using fear-mongering. It's typical. I think that Albertans won't fall for it."

It's not just opposition parties speaking out. Instead, a Wildrose supporter sparked this week's outcry.

Edmonton blogger Kathleen Smith (no relation to Danielle) had backed the party until discovering the party's conscience-rights policy, which says Wildrose would "implement legislation protecting the 'conscience rights' of health-care professionals."

The policy led her to quit the party and write a blog post about why she did.

Her website typically gets 5,000 hits a month. That post alone has had 10,000 this week – helped largely in part by P.C. supporters spreading it over Twitter. Though she says she has never voted P.C. (and is a vocal critic of the Redford government), she was accused of being a P.C. mole. "It was crazy," she said.

The conscience-rights debate is more theoretical than practical – abortions, for instance, are typically performed in specialized publicly funded clinics, where doctors with religious objections can simply choose not to work. Wildrose would also repeal section three of the Human Rights Act (one it says infringes on free speech) and do away with the commission that enforces it – sending those cases, like conscience-rights issues, to the courts.

These issues, combined with Wildrose candidates who have been vocal opponents of gay rights, drove the blogger away.

"Alberta's in this strange little place right now. We're caught between who we used to be and what we're growing into. And we're caught right on that cliff. We're either going to teeter into the future or we're going to slide us to the back," she said. "And this is the party I think that's going to slide us backwards."

The leaders debate is set for April 12. All the parties have light schedules over the weekend – Mr. Mason, for instance, got a haircut Friday – as they take a break before the final stretch leading up to the April 23 election. Various polls show Wildrose in majority territory, but each party says only voting day matters.

And, until then, Ms. Smith expects her party will continue to be a target.

"I expect we're going to see scaremongering, more allegations, more probably ads depicting us as scary," she said, urging voters to read the Wildrose platform and "judge for themselves."