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Orman faces a turbulent start on Alberta's campaign trail

Rick Orman is shown in this undated handout photo. A former cabinet minister who hasn't been in politics for almost 20 years says he wouldn't be afraid as premier to confront what he calls the biggest challenge to Alberta's Conservative party.

Jayson Schultz/The Canadian Press/Jayson Schultz/The Canadian Press

Soon after Rick Orman announced last spring that he would contend for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, a peculiar photo began circulating of the Calgary oilman hitting the campaign trail.

The 63-year-old former Tory cabinet minister who left the legislature in 1993 was seated in a cozy jet seemingly poised to pick a treat from selection of fruit and pastries presented on a silver platter. In an era of austerity and deficit-spending, it raised eyebrows of both friends and foes. Was this corporate Calgary's man poised to replace the unpopular and out-going Premier Ed Stelmach? How could this well-heeled businessman appreciate the struggles of ordinary, debt-laden Albertans?

Mr. Orman shrugged off the jokes being made at his expense.

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"It's not my plane," he said, setting the record straight that it was, in fact, a charter.

"Coming in late - in May - and being out [of politics]for 18 years, I have to use every possible tool to get from the Hay River to the Milk River," Mr. Orman explained.

"This is a big province and I've got to get around. So I don't make any apologies for chartering a plane and going up to the Métis settlements. It's the only way I can get around to see everybody and listen to their concerns."

And so, while the five other candidates in the race are using cars, buses and, heaven forbid, buying commercial airline tickets to get to Alberta's far-flung places, Mr. Orman is using whatever is at his disposal to get a jump on them.

But he may need more than an edge in transportation.

According to July poll, he is tied for fourth with former cabinet Doug Horner, each 4.7 per cent support, but both are well behind other former cabinet ministers Gary Mar (12.1 per cent), Ted Morton (8 per cent) and Alison Redford (6 per cent). He is ahead of Doug Griffiths (1.5 per cent).

But the same survey found 53.3 per cent of respondents were undecided, and, as Mr. Orman optimistically points out, that gives him plenty of room to shake the bushes both near and far before first ballot voting on Sept. 17. (If no candidate captures a majority, a second ballot is slated for Oct. 1. Few expect an outright winner on the first ballot.)

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Mr. Orman, a lifelong Tory, was a cabinet minister during the Don Getty era from 1986 to 1992, holding the employment, labour and energy portfolios, and ran unsuccessfully in the 1992 leadership race, which ultimately went to Ralph Klein. He left elected politics in 1993 and went on to found a pair of energy companies, lead others, and sit as a member of the board of directors of still more.

Mr. Orman, who describes himself as one of the party's two right-wing candidates (Mr. Morton is the other), said he's simply an "entrepreneur" possessing both the business chops and political know-how, despite his 18 years away from the legislature, that makes him the ideal candidate.

"My weakness is my strength," he said, "...I'm not connected to this crowd. Everybody in this race is connected to the government and people aren't happy with a lot of things that have gone on with the government."

He may not be far off, according to Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist with Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton.

Mr. Orman is an attractive candidate, he said, especially in the disaffected south where voters grumbled about Mr. Stelmach's oil and gas policies. He has the potential for growth, but first he needs to make it to the second ballot.

"His message is resonating, but the odds are stacked against him," Prof. Mensah said.

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Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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