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Alberta Progressive Conservative Alison Redford celebrates becoming leader of the party and the new premier following the second ballot in the party's leadership race in Edmonton, Alta., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.

Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alison Redford has overcome long odds to become Alberta's new premier – the first woman to hold the post.

Her unlikely marathon victory came early Sunday morning, tossing the province's Progressive Conservative party establishment on its head.

It was as close as they come.

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The three-way party leadership race was cut to two when no one had a majority after voting Saturday. The third-place candidate, former deputy premier Doug Horner, was dropped and his supporters' second choices from the preferential ballot were counted towards the remaining candidates. Those votes overwhelmingly went to Ms. Redford, allowing the first-term MLA to overtake frontrunner Gary Mar, who actually had more first-choice votes.

She finished with 37,104 votes, or 51.1 per cent, just ahead of Mr. Mar's 35,491 votes. She did it despite entering the first ballot with only one fellow MLA backing her, having little or no name recognition outside her hometown Calgary and being a first-term MLA.

"Today, Alberta voted for change," Ms. Redford told supporters at an Edmonton convention centre just before 2 a.m. local time Sunday morning, as she pledged an ambitious agenda that includes hiring more teachers and boosting healthcare spending, all while watching the bottom line. "Make no mistake – we are going to do things differently."

Her campaign manager, Stephen Carter, also led Naheed Nenshi's unlikely ascent to become Calgary's mayor. Both Ms. Redford and Mr. Nenshi won with a distinctly centrist vision and by casting themselves as agents for change.

"It's the miracle on the prairies. Nobody would have picked her," PC party president Bill Smith said.

Ms. Redford, however, shrugged off the significance of the changing face of Alberta politics. "I actually think the province changed some time ago, and politics is catching up with it," she said.

It took more than six hours for the party to count its 78,000 votes. Delays were caused by unspecified voting irregularities in two ridings, but Mr. Mar conceded.

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"The people of Alberta have made their wishes known, and I respect their decision," he said. "I am encouraging the candidates from this ballot and the first ballot to get behind our new leader. Alison Redford will need all of our help in the months ahead."

The election of Ms. Redford – a 46-year-old bilingual human rights lawyer firmly on the party's left flank – caps an eight-month campaign triggered by the resignation of embattled premier Ed Stelmach. Ms. Redford more than doubled her vote total from a first-ballot contest two weeks earlier.

"I know I'm leaving this province in very good hands," Mr. Stelmach told party faithful.

However, his party faces a long road after a divisive leadership race – Mr. Mar left the conference hall during Ms. Redford's speech, and none of the current cabinet backed her. "Looks like we have some work to do," her campaign manager said. Others said the party would rally behind the leader, even if nearly every MLA opposed her.

"There's obviously a lot of work that has to be done now to bring the different factions of the party together, but I think what you'll see in Alison is a woman of courage, a woman of vision, and obviously of great skill. And she'll do it," said Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who stayed neutral in the race.

Mr. Horner believes his supporters bought into Ms. Redford's message of change, her focus on public health care and her commitment to education funding. "We're very similar," said Mr. Horner, who stayed long after the crowds had left the hall. He'd earlier told the crowd to rally behind Ms. Redford. "This province has a tremendous future, and now we have a tremendous leader," he said.

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Ms. Redford's campaign was based on promising a series of expensive programs, including topping up salaries of non-profit sector workers; introducing family care clinics as a costly pillar of what is already Canada's most expensive health system; immediately restoring $100-million in education cuts; and expanding payments to the severely disabled. And yet, she drew support from many on the party's right flank after the first ballot reduced the field to three just two weeks ago.

"I think people are starting to realize her resume," said MLA Dave Rodney, who began backing Ms. Redford after his preferred candidate, right-wing stalwart Ted Morton, missed the cut for the final ballot. Mr. Rodney dismissed any notion Ms. Redford is too liberal for the party.

"Not at all. The truth is – the name of our party is the Progressive Conservatives. It's cliché to say that, but that's what it is," he said. "This is a perfect opportunity for great things to happen."

The victory also came four days after the sudden death of Ms. Redford's mother. She temporarily suspended campaigning, but returned with a strong debate performance less than 24 hours later, and dominated much of the weekly news cycle.

"I'm proud of my mom," Ms. Redford told the crowd in her victory speech. "She got me involved in politics 30 years ago, she's a big part of the reason I'm here, and I'm thinking about her tonight."

Ms. Redford has had a distinguished legal career with international stints, including one in Afghanistan. She was first elected in 2008, and has deep family ties to the waning PC wing of the federal Conservative party. She's married with one 9-year-old daughter, who was long asleep by the time the results rolled in. "We'll tell her tomorrow," the incoming premier said. (Until she is sworn in, her technical title is premier designate.)

She said an election, which some observers suspected could be called as early as this fall, will take place in about a year.

Ms. Redford's win immediately called into question the voting system, which some say shouldn't allow a person who didn't lead the pack of first-choice votes to pull an upset victory. "You don't want a decision to be based on technicalities," said Mar backer Aleem Dhanani, 34, who was among hundreds gathered at the Edmonton conference hall to see the results roll in.

However, the party president, Mr. Smith, said the system is designed to produce a candidate that appeals to as much of the party as possible. Mr. Mar entered Saturday's final run-off having earned 41 per cent of first-ballot votes. Ms. Redford had 19 per cent and Mr. Horner had 15 per cent.

Those votes didn't carry over, but Mr. Mar won the endorsements of all three of the first-ballot leadership hopefuls who didn't grab a spot on the final ballot.

The landscape, however, shifted. On Saturday, Ms. Redford carved into Mr. Mar's support in Edmonton. Mr. Horner, meanwhile, won only a handful of northern, rural ridings that were among the first to report, including his own.

There were mixed opinions among leadership hopefuls who had missed the cut for the second ballot.

"I think it's better to have a runoff between the top two," said Rick Orman, who finished fifth on the first ballot and then backed Mr. Mar. "If the third choice's second choices are affecting the winner, that doesn't feel right."

Doug Griffiths, however, said the system worked. He finished in last place on the first ballot, and also backed Mr. Mar. "We probably don't focus enough on the fact that whoever wins, we're all on the same team and we have to work on building a better Alberta," he said.

Turnout was low – just over 78,000, down from 144,000 on the final ballot in the 2006 leadership race that saw Mr. Stelmach as the surprise winner to be elevated to the premier's office. Opposition parties have pounced on the low figures, insisting it's a sign support is waning for the PC government, which has strung together consecutive majorities since 1971.

Ms. Redford won by bringing in new voters and convincing others to switch over to her. Wes Heath, 24, was one of 587 people to vote in the riding of Vermilion-Lloydminster. On the first ballot, he voted for Mr. Mar; the second time around, he chose Ms. Redford on the basis of her performance at the final televised all-candidates debate. "She had no notes. It all came from up here," Mr. Heath said. "We've just got to get the PC party back on track."

It's a lofty task. Ms. Redford leaves the right wing of the political spectrum open to Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party. Members of the upstart party believe she'll be easy to attack.

Ms. Smith has published a statement calling Ms. Redford's leadership campaign "perplexing," saying she campaigned against a cabinet she was a part of.

However, Ms. Redford drew new people into the party – at a time when the Liberals are rebuilding with their own new leader, mercurial former Tory Raj Sherman, who congratulated her Sunday morning. The new blood included nurse Susan Fields and her mother, a retired nurse, Joan MacKenzie, who voted for Ms. Redford in Edmonton-Riverview, a Liberal-held riding.

"She has far more appeal for the party to go forward," Ms. Fields said. "She's not the same old, same old."

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