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Alberta Exchange, March 26: Will Redford channel Klein, circa '93, on the hustings?

Premier Alison Redford holds a news conference at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on Jan. 18, 2012.

JASON FRANSON/jason franson The Globe and Mail

Alberta Exchange is a twice weekly e-mail conversation on the provincial election featuring The Globe's top political minds. Today, B.C. editor Patrick Brethour, columnist Gary Mason and Alberta correspondent Josh Wingrove setup the campaign.

Patrick Brethour: Alison Redford is triggering not just an election this week, but the long-awaited showdown between her Progressive Conservative Party – which I think, Josh, is the most successful political party in the Western world – and the upstart Wildrose Party, attempting to displace the PCs with a hard-right/libertarian pitch.

When I lived in Alberta in the middle part of the last decade, I marvelled at the inability of the opposition – then the Liberals, and a shadow presence of the NDP – to gain any traction on the government, whatever the scandal, misstep or call-it-in campaign. But Wildrose, at least from here in Vancouver, seems a different animal, something that could damage, or even end, the Tory dynasty.

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So, Gary and Josh, a question for you both: Do you think that this campaign could be like 1971, when Peter Lougheed's PCs decisively dispatched the long-in-the-tooth Social Credit government? Or is it more like 1993, when Ralph Klein faced a surging challenger (the Liberals) but successfully co-opted the change wave and rode that to a majority?

Gary Mason: Well, I will certainly have a better idea when I'm on the ground in Alberta this week, Pat. But right now it looks more like '93 than '71 to me. Wildrose has a charismatic leader who has attracted many disaffected Conservatives to her cause. But in the end I don't think the groundswell that we've seen around Wildrose will be enough to unseat the PCs.

There is a reason that the PCs have the word progressive in the party name. Believe it or not, it has been responsible for policies that are "progressive" in nature. In another province, they might have been introduced by a Liberal government. Look at the last PC budget, which some called "NDP like."

The reason the PCs do this is because the province isn't inhabited completely by the redneck Cowboy of Alberta mythology. That is why I don't think a hard right party will assume control of power there.

Josh Wingrove: I certainly agree with Gary that it's not all cowboy here, and that informs the question of whether it's a 1971 or a 1993 kind of thing. Ralph Klein beat a surging Liberal Party in 1993, and now Alison Redford has a surge on the right – but also a weak left flank. The Official Opposition Liberals here don't even have a full slate of candidates nominated. Ms. Redford, as you say Gary, is certainly a small-l liberal, so for every vote Wildrose takes, she can pick it up on the left – if you're a leftish voter in Alberta and you look at the PCs or Wildrose, maybe you take the devil you know.

What's striking about Wildrose, however, is their fundraising – they pulled in $2.8-million last year, which shattered the record (one set, you guessed it, a year before by Wildrose). A lot of that is small donations, while the rest is big companies hedging their bets. But if that small donation speaks to a mom-and-pop base that will door knock, put up signs and make phone calls, we've got a ballgame. However, even then, Wildrose needs huge gains to win.

Right now they're doing particularly well in rural Alberta, one third of the political base here. To win, they need a strong showing in both Edmonton (traditionally the least conservative area) and Calgary. They haven't yet shown that. So, combined with Liberal troubles, Ms. Redford has the inside track – '93, not '71. But, as the Redford camp repeatedly says: "campaigns matter." And we haven't had ours yet.

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Gary Mason: One thing that is going to be interesting to watch is just how dirty this campaign is going to get. And the impact attack ads – those being run by the PCs for the first time – and those being run by Wildrose will have on the electorate. As we know, the public says it hates attack ads but they seem to work.

The attack ads the PCs are running are an indication of just how seriously they are taking the Wildrose threat. I've seen the Wildrose ads on Redford and I think the latest ones – unlike an earlier version that were overly vicious – are very effective. Guys, what role do you think these ads will play ultimately?

Josh Wingrove: Ed Stelmach warned people about this in his goodbye press conference – U.S.-style attack ads, which he deplored. Wildrose's ads (with the slogan " It's time, Alberta") are out and are all about Ms. Redford, casting her as a flip-flopper who can't be trusted. It's your classic scary-man-with-deep-voice ad that cuts to lovely colour images of Danielle Smith at the end – pointing out a cabinet pay hike, how a former cabinet minister bullied a school board into staying quiet, Ms. Redford's refusal to call a full health inquiry, complaints by doctors and so on.

PC ads have been more about policy, in particular criticizing Wildrose's opposition to new penalties for drunk drivers starting at 0.05. Anyhow, Wildrose's ads are personal because that's the strategy that worked when Stelmach was in power – take down the leader. Wildrose has some veteran people on their campaign team, including some with Harper ties, so they're clearly from the attack ad school. There's much to attack, in particular if you include things under Mr. Stelmach's tenure (like a cabinet pay raise), as Wildrose is doing. But the ads just won't be as effective, though, as they would have been against Mr. Stelmach.

Another thing: Ms. Redford's party is courting female voters, while Wildrose is mainly looking at a male voter base. That will affect the ad strategy for the PCs – I think women and new voters, both courted by Ms. Redford, are scared off by that sort of thing.

Patrick Brethour: If all goes as expected, the campaign will kick off Monday, and the leaders will deliver their opening pitches. What themes do you expect them to hit? I'm particuarly wondering about Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, and whether she is going to overtly court social conservatives. Josh, Gary, what do you expect to hear?

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Josh Wingrove: On the contrary, I think you court who you don't have. Ms. Smith is a libertarian whose job it is to sell her brand of right-wing politics to the masses. She'll be preaching financial discipline more than anything. Ms. Redford has a deficit and has been coy about tax hikes, giving Ms. Smith plenty of fodder. Ms. Redford will continue to court, basically, the sandwich generation – people with kids in school, whose parents need long-term care beds, and so forth.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have proposed tax hikes – a pretty bold platform they've already rolled out. And the NDP are hoping for their own orange wave, to overtake the Liberals while they're in disarray. Power prices, which have soared recently, are a big one for the NDP.

Gary Mason: Yes, I think Josh has summed up the Wildrose's strategy pretty well. I also think the attack ads indicate that Ms. Smith will be hitting hard on the idea of change; that the PCs have been in too long, have betrayed the voters' trust and have taken on all the characteristics of a tired old dynasty that has run out of ideas and is bogged down by scandal.

Meantime, the Libs and Dippers will be campaigning on the notion that they are there to represent moderates in the province and they are betting there are a growing number of them. The Libs, and Raj Sherman, will likely hammer hard on all the problems in Alberta's health care sector – that's his bread and butter. While Brian Mason will likely lead a more classic NDP campaign; that the party can be the conscience for a kindler and gentler province. It will be asking Albertans for more of a voice in the legislature and could well get it.

Patrick Brethour: And, at a guess, Ms. Redford will be channeling Ralph Klein (there's an odd fit!) circa 1993: You can have change, but without the scare factor of an untested opposition leader. The PCs pulled off a miracle in the prairies two decades ago – we'll find out if there's a sequel in the making.

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