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Letter from Alberta

Alberta PC leadership contenders look to Ottawa for a lift Add to ...

Faced with a divided base and a wide-open race to take over Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party, two candidates are looking to Tory-blue Ottawa for help.

Ted Morton and Rick Orman, the conservative stalwarts in the leadership race, flew to the federal Conservative convention in Ottawa this month to glad-hand with MPs, power brokers and organizers behind Stephen Harper's newly minted majority.

The race's other four candidates didn't go.

The strategies are clear: Mr. Morton, a social conservative viewed as polarizing by many, is counting on federal Tory supporters to boost his campaign; Mr. Orman, who is jumping back into politics after a 19-year absence, wanted to feel out potential supporters, to get a sense of what issues the federal MPs heard during their campaign and, naturally, to demonstrate his Conservative stripes. Both men hope to win back PC supporters that have bled to the upstart, right-wing Wildrose Alliance.

Mr. Orman wasted no time in brushing off the other four candidates - Gary Mar, Alison Redford, Doug Horner and Doug Griffiths - as Red Tory moderates. The gulf between the two camps illustrates the choice facing the PCs: saddle up to Wildrose and hope to win or tack to the centre.

"Four of the six candidates probably wouldn't be going after the Harper Conservative vote, the right-of-centre vote. And that's fine. I won't be going for the left-of-centre vote," Mr. Orman said. "It's just good to be there [in Ottawa]"

The other four candidates dismissed their rivals' trek to Ottawa, saying leadership races are won and lost on the ground in Alberta.

"I was busy selling memberships to everyday Albertans," Mr. Mar said.

Ms. Redford is taking a similar approach.

"What I'm doing right now is talking to Albertans as much as I can to build that base," she said. "I think Rick and Ted have a different strategy."

Candidates continue to trace different paths on the campaign trail. Mr. Mar, who is running a general-election-style campaign, secured a bus wrapped with a giant decal of his face and name, and recently opened an Edmonton office along trendy, pricey Whyte Avenue - hardly a PC hotbed.

The three candidates from the party's progressive wing, meanwhile, are focusing on selling party memberships - because it's party members who will vote for the next leader.

"Gary [Mar]can [hypothetically]have $8-million, flashy ads and a big orange bus. I don't know that that necessarily motivates people to spend $5 and buy a membership. It always comes down to membership sales," said Mr. Griffiths, who is running a shoe-string campaign by comparison.

Political ties still run deep between the provincial and federal parties. Mr. Horner campaigned for a handful of local MPs, and called the majority "great for Alberta." Mr. Griffiths noted the "significant overlap" between the two.

But even with a prime minister from Calgary and a majority government with local roots, most candidates see little to be gained provincially by the Harper win.

"My calendar's absolutely packed with Albertans who want to see me," Mr. Horner said. "I think time will have to tell you what role [not attending]may or may not have played for us. As the candidate, I thought it was important I was here in Alberta."

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