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Alberta Progressive Conservative leader Jim Prentice arrives for the leaders debate in Edmonton on Thursday.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Alberta's political leaders traded barbs Thursday night during the sole televised debate of an election campaign that has turned into a three-way race in a province that has voted Progressive Conservative for 44 years.

Faced with a steep drop in oil prices and a deep budget deficit, PC Leader Jim Prentice spent the debate trying to persuade Albertans that his party deserved another shot at government.

"I'm an optimist and I know we will overcome these challenges with that Alberta spirit and determination that can't be stopped," Mr. Prentice said. "This election is about choices."

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While the Tories have dealt with electoral threats in the past, they have never been in an election campaign where parties to the right and left have simultaneously torn away the PC's progressive and conservative voters.

On Thursday, Mr. Prentice swivelled between the left and right as he traded and fended off attacks from Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean and New Democratic Leader Rachel Notley. In a number of polls, Mr. Prentice has fallen behind both opposition parties in popularity.

Alberta faces the possibility of a minority government for the first time, or even a coalition. Ms. Notley has said she is open to a coalition. Mr. Jean hasn't ruled one out either – neither seems likely to prop up Mr. Prentice.

Holding the leadership of the right-wing Wildrose for less than a month, Mr. Jean is still largely unknown to most Albertans. He and Ms. Notley met for the first time when they shook hands at the start of the debate and he took time during the evening to burnish his credentials.

"I've built an ice bridge at minus 60 degrees, been a registered trapper and I've worked with my hands," he said. "I've created jobs, I've built things, I've worked hard and I've given back."

Riding to what could be her party's best showing ever, Ms. Notley was looking to broaden her appeal beyond Edmonton, where her party could pick up a dozen seats or more.

Mr. Prentice's suggestion before the election call that Albertans were personally responsible for the province's deficit was raised quickly. "When [Mr. Prentice] says 'Look in the mirror,' because somehow what they did is your fault, you and I know that's not true," said Ms. Notley.

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Led by interim leader David Swann, the Liberals have shrunk to obscurity in the campaign and could lose most of their seats in the legislature. While Mr. Swann towered over his opponents due to his height, he tried at several points to be heard above the fray.

"What has become very clear is that this government is failing Albertans. The PCs have blown through all our resource wealth in one generation," he said.

While Alberta hasn't seen many lively televised debates, leaders on Thursday attacked their rivals' platforms and quips punctuated exchanges. "I always appreciate a good fear monger," Mr. Jean said to Mr. Prentice as the Tory leader threw another attack at the Wildrose.

"I know math is difficult," Mr. Prentice said to Ms. Notley during a testy exchange.

With Mr. Prentice delivering nearly $1-billion less in his budget than the province's schools and hospitals had anticipated, school boards have warned that no new teachers will be hired this year, despite 12,000 new students entering provincial schools. "You spoke about choice. That is one of the choices your government is making," Ms. Notley said to the PC Leader.

The road to the May 5 election started on the day Mr. Prentice was sworn in as Alberta's 16th Premier on September 15 of last year. Oil prices that were once more than $140 (U.S.) a barrel began a slide during that month and would eventually settle around the $50-a-barrel mark.

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The fall in oil prices tore open a hole in Alberta's budget and sent the province's economy into a tailspin. He turned to salvaging the province's books. Mr. Prentice went to the lieutenant governor's office on April 7 and set off an election campaign a year before a fixed elections law required it.

The weeks since have been dominated by wrangling over each party's fiscal plan to get Alberta's budget back into balance. After posting a record $5-billion deficit this year, the Tories have vowed to return to balance within three years, aided by 59 tax and fee hikes.

The Wildrose has a similar timeline to return to balance, but has vowed to reverse Mr. Prentice's tax increases and instead cut thousands of managers from the civil service. The NDP's plan would add more money to health and education while raising Alberta's corporate tax to 12 per cent and adopting a more progressive tax system.

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