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Alberta's election campaign brings out discordant views of the province

Alberta's boom has changed the province – its population has jumped by 800,000 in a decade, the balance has shifted from farms to cities, and the booming oil sands have made it a player on the global stage.

Amid its new realities, the provincial election campaign is coming down to a fundamental question: What has it all meant for Alberta today? Does the province remain a bastion of small-government conservatism with firewall tendencies, or is it now a big-government energy capital looking for a lead role in Confederation?

Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative dynasty hangs in the balance – she sees Alberta as the latter, saying the province has changed and can't stick to the "simplistic" approaches of the past.

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"My view is that we have to have a different relationship with Canada and the other provinces than we've had in the past. It's a more complicated world than it used to be. The fact that we have resources isn't enough to allow us to dictate on anything on a national policy stage," Ms. Redford said on Tuesday in Calgary.

But her chief rival, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, is a libertarian banking on the notion that Alberta's conservative ethos is the same as it was before the boom.

"I think she's wrong," she said about Ms. Redford's idea of the province. "I don't think Alberta has changed and I don't think it needs to be changed."

That discord informs much of the campaign. On Tuesday, Ms. Smith visited a supporter's home, a sheep farm, and then a party rally. Ms. Redford went to a 125-year-old company, Sprung Structures, that once made wagon covers and now exports high-tech building materials to 90 countries.

Ms. Redford, a 47-year-old lawyer, talks about investing in health and education, reaching outside of borders, and her vision for a Canadian energy strategy. She's the face of wealthy Calgary's global ambitions, PCs and red Tories.

Ms. Smith, 40, is focused squarely on running surpluses, cutting spending and championing traditional conservatism. The former columnist and school board trustee (who is married to a Sun News Network executive) hasn't served as an MLA, but became the populist darling of disaffected conservatives and small-town Alberta by casting the PCs as out of touch.

"They are going to have to get out of their limos and put down their flutes of champagne," Ms. Smith said on Monday. "And they're going to have to drop their caviar spoons and they're going to have to stop counting their ridiculous retirement packages. And they're going to wake up to a new Alberta, which feels like Alberta is supposed to."

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Conservatives are split. The parties are tied in polls, one of which showed only 54 per cent of people who voted for Ms. Redford's PCs in the last election planned to do so again.

"We're getting back to real conservatives if we get this Wildrose in," John Kalbhen, a former Tory, said at one of Ms. Smith's events. "That's why we're on board with Wildrose."

The themes were reflected over and over in campaign stops in which both women visited the other's riding during the first two days.

The campaign is about "defining our future differently," Ms. Redford said in Edmonton on Monday, adding later in Ponoka, Alta., that the province has "an opportunity to take a direction we haven't yet taken." Then, at an oil sands welding shop that exports half of what it produces, she spoke about what "Alberta has become."

Ms. Smith, meanwhile, stresses "common-sense conservative values" of Albertans. On Tuesday, she pledged she would never run a deficit (a move the PCs say would cost thousands of teachers and nurses their jobs) and warned Alberta's current path will "destroy what makes this place exceptional."

Some of Alberta's recent political history supports Ms. Redford's vision. The most conservative candidate to run against her in the leadership race, Ted Morton, didn't make the final ballot; Ms. Redford won by reaching outside the traditional party base; and Naheed Nenshi, the centrist professor who talks about "politics in full sentences," won Calgary's 2010 mayoral race.

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"I have a great deal of certainty and confidence in terms of where Albertans are viewing the future of the province," Ms. Redford said. "I don't think it's the status quo, and I don't think it's going back 15 or 20 years. I think it's about the future, understanding we're a different community, we're a different society … and my sense is that's what Albertans are looking for."

Ms. Smith, however, said Albertans are looking for the opposite – those common-sense conservative values she cites at each stop as her poll numbers surge. "I think that this is what this election is about."

With a report from Dawn Walton

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