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Alberta leadership race to pit red Tories against blue

Doug Horner, Alberta's deputy premier, announced his bid to lead the Progressive Conservatives in Edmonton on Feb. 4, 2011.

John Ulan/©2010 John Ulan/Epic Photogaphy Inc.

The decision of Alberta Deputy Premier Doug Horner to quit cabinet and seek his party's leadership raises a question: Can a northern Albertan capture the crown again after the tumultuous tenure of Premier Ed Stelmach?

For decades, premiers in this province have alternated, if only by chance, between its two major cities and their respective halves of the province: Edmonton in the north and Calgary in the south. This has highlighted a perceived divide and led to speculation that, since Mr. Stelmach hailed from the north, the Progressive Conservative ranks will this time rally around a Calgarian.

Mr. Horner, for one, doesn't think that's the case.

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"I don't think it matters where you lay your head down. It's what you're going to do to lead the party," the 50-year-old Mr. Horner, who represents a rural riding just west of Edmonton, said Friday morning while announcing both his cabinet resignation and candidacy.

He became the second cabinet member to enter the race, joining former Finance Minister Ted Morton, who is from the party's more conservative flank. A third, Justice Minister Alison Redford, is set to jump in but hasn't formally done so.

Both Mr. Morton and Ms. Redford are from Calgary. The Progressive Conservatives have a simple one-member, one-vote policy - if Calgary's larger population leads to more PC members (party officials say it's too early to say), the region could hold more sway.

However, few expect regionalism will heavily affect voting patterns. Instead, party members say this race, like the last one in 2006, is between red and blue Tories.

"There's no Edmonton-Calgary split," said veteran PC campaigner Alan Hallman, whose 2006 candidate, Jim Dinning, finished second to Mr. Stelmach. Mr. Hallman added: "This is a fight along ideological lines - that's where this fight is."

But ideology, too, tends to be split regionally. Edmonton is typically more moderate than Calgary, a division that could affect the looming battle. Do PC members want a moderate to advocate big-tent policies (such as Edmonton's Mr. Horner did Friday), or a fiscal conservative to fend off the challenge from the surging, right-leaning Wildrose Alliance?

That ideological battle began officially Friday when, however politely, Mr. Horner presented a vision that's a far cry from Mr. Morton's principles of low taxes, minimal (or no) deficits and limited social spending.

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Mr. Horner said several times he wants to "emphasize what it means to be a Progressive Conservative," which he, reading his speech from an iPad, said includes "a compassion for those in need, and an understanding that we need to invest in our people [and]our infrastructure to continue to build on the solid foundation that we have. My goal is to unite Albertans around those values, around that passion, around that compassion."

He also said he expects the party will ask leadership candidates to release their donor lists, saying he'd abide by the party's wishes. Some Tories see such transparency as a way to woo back those who've left for Wildrose and other parties.

"My caution to any candidate is: You will not be successful if you pretend you're going to be transparent," said veteran Calgary Tory Kelley Charlebois, who was caught up in his own controversy in 2004 when he received lucrative consulting contracts from a ministry he once worked for. (The minister at the time, Gary Mar, is now considering a leadership bid as well.)

Mr. Horner worked in agriculture before first being elected in 2001 and has served as Minister of Agriculture and most recently Minister of Advanced Education.

He may need to try and distance himself from a fellow farmer, Mr. Stelmach, who some in the party are eager to move away from.

"It's not just another guy from Edmonton. It's another rural guy, it's another northern rural guy… and we just got rid of that," said one veteran Tory campaigner from Calgary after Mr. Horner's announcement.

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The race is still in early days. Mr. Stelmach has defied the wishes of many of his party and is clinging to office, saying a leadership vote won't be held until September.

Many are expected to enter the race yet, including Ms. Redford. Her supporters have hired Stephen Carter, a campaign manager from the rival Wildrose Party who ran Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's successful bid last year. Mr. Carter had joined Wildrose (for his second stint) just two months earlier.

Despite her campaign appearing to have begun, Ms. Redford hasn't yet declared her candidacy or, as such, resigned as cabinet minister. She's said to be considering family implications. On Jan. 27, Mr. Stelmach said "those who declare they are seeking the leadership have a responsibility to resign their cabinet post."

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