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The downtown skyline of Calgary with the Pengrowth Saddledome in the foreground. photo by Larry MacDougal

Larry MacDougal

Just days before a vote in Calgary's narrow three-way mayoralty race, a leading candidate was dragged into a bitter television debate while a rival has picked up a pair of new endorsements.

Stuck in a tight race with academic Naheed Nenshi and Alderman Ric McIver, former CTV anchor Barb Higgins made waves on Thursday when she clashed with TV host Mike McCourt during an interview.

Mr. McCourt, who is known for his confrontational style, described Ms. Higgins as a "candidate dancing on somebody else's strings" who "picked some guy who was a screw-up." (Ms. Higgins's campaign was initially run by veteran political operative Donn Lovett, whom she later let go.)

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The former anchor shot back that she thought it "inappropriate to call anyone a political screw-up" and lectured Mr. McCourt on journalism ethics. The interview ended with a terse, "Thanks," and Ms. Higgins left the set before suggesting someone had spoiled Mr. McCourt's breakfast. The comment was quickly reported on Twitter, and criticized by the other campaigns. Mr. McIver's communications director, Sam Armstrong, said it lacked a mayor's "poise and savvy."

Shannon Larkins, a Higgins campaign spokeswoman, acknowledged the candidate "did lose her temper" after being "shocked and then quickly angered" at Mr. McCourt's questions. Ms. Higgins apologized on her blog.

The remarks come days after a Calgary Herald poll placed Ms. Higgins, the young Mr. Nenshi and the polarizing Mr. McIver within three percentage points of each other. Lori Williams, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University, said there's a strong "anybody but McIver" sentiment among some voters, and suggested Ms. Higgins's comments may send voters to Mr. Nenshi in an effort to prevent the right-leaning Mr. McIver from winning.

"It's too close to call," Ms. Williams said.

On Thursday, Mr. Nenshi scored endorsements from two one-time competitors: MLA Kent Hehr and veteran oil and charity executive Wayne Stewart. "It's another example of the momentum we've been building," Mr. Nenshi said.

Those came after Alderman Bob Hawkesworth dropped out of the race and endorsed Ms. Higgins this week. The three endorsements came from candidates whose combined support was about 10 per cent, and were shrugged off by the McIver camp.

"They all represent tiny constituencies," said Mr. Armstrong, whose candidate got his own endorsement this week from a Calgary Herald columnist.

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