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The Globe and Mail

Right-wing lobby group backs dark-horse candidate for Alberta Liberal leadership

Craig Chandler speaks during candidate speeches at the Tory Leadership Convention in Toronto on May 30, 2003. Chandler withdrew at the party's convention after using his speech to critique the other contenders.

Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press/Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press

Yet another sign Alberta politics is in the midst of a seismic shift: A notoriously conservative lobby group is backing a dark-horse Liberal leadership candidate as the next possible premier of the province.

"Please vote in the Alberta Liberal leadership race," reads the surprising headline on a letter penned over the weekend by Craig Chandler, a noted Alberta religious conservative. "Seriously! This is not a joke!"

The Liberal Party hasn't been a real factor in Alberta politics for four decades. But with the resignation of Premier Ed Stelmach as Tory leader, the upstart right-wing Wildrose Party challenging to rule the province with charismatic boss Danielle Smith, and the Liberals in the hunt for a new top dog after David Swann called it quits, provincial politics has never been more interesting.

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Mr. Chandler, who is executive director of the 6,000-member Progressive Group for Independent Business, is supporting former finance minister Ted Morton to succeed Mr. Stelmach, but he is also urging voters to cast a ballet for fiscal conservative Bill Harvey, who has failed twice to represent the Liberals in the legislature but is nonetheless hoping to lead the party.

Mr. Harvey, a businessman who has served as an organizer to former party boss Laurence Decore, the hugely successful Liberal leader who grabbed 32 seats in the 1993 provincial election, is running on a platform to return to the party's "fiscally conservative roots."

"We think we need to hedge our bets," Mr. Chandler noted, suggesting the next provincial election, expected by March, 2012, could see votes split between the Tories and the Wildrose.

"If the wrong person becomes leader of the Alberta Liberal Party and the party manages to crawl up the middle and form government, we are in serious, serious trouble as a province!" he wrote.

A poll conducted this month suggested ousted Tory MLA and health-care whistleblower Raj Sherman has the lead in the Liberal leadership race over two sitting Liberal MLAs, while Mr. Harvey is running fourth.

Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton pointed out that Mr. Harvey is not an "establishment Liberal," but has the political orientation most in line with the mood in Alberta.

Still, he added, it's unrealistic to expect the Liberals, even under Mr. Harvey, to become something more than Alberta's official opposition.

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"If he's successful, he could capture the political centre and maybe take the party to the remarkable showing that they had under Laurence Decore," Prof. Mensah said.

Mr. Harvey, who has been a member of the Progressive Group for Independent Business, was thrilled by the endorsement.

"It's a big step for these guys," he said, urging voters to ignore the Liberal Party label.

"We understand the party has lost its way in the last little while," Mr. Harvey said. "Forget the party, we'll solve your problems."

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