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The Globe and Mail

Conservatives find it harder to rope in Alberta vote

NDP candidate Ray Martin talks with Norma Ayott as he canvasses in the Virginia Park neighbourhood of Edmonton April 25, 2011.

Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/jason franson The Globe and Mail

The New Democrats are surging nationally, the Liberals are pushing to win back an old stronghold, and a revolt is taking hold in a once safe Tory seat.

Things aren't as easy as they used to be for Conservatives in Alberta.

Strong races have emerged in four of the province's 28 ridings, which the Conservatives swept in 2006 and where they won all but one seat in 2008.

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The challenges have stirred up campaigns that have typically been thought to be foregone conclusions federally. Underscoring the importance of this development, New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton will host a rally on Wednesday evening - not in seat-rich Ontario or British Columbia, but in Edmonton, where only three years ago, few thought his party ever had a chance.

Among the four races to watch, only one has emerged as a three-way battle: Edmonton Centre, the one-time constituency of former Liberal deputy prime minister Anne McLellan.

Ms. McLellan was knocked off in 2006 by Laurie Hawn, a retired Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel who made a name for himself by relentlessly knocking on thousands of doors to defeat Ms. McLellan.

He easily won re-election in 2008, when overall voter turnout and Liberal support both plunged by about 10,000 votes. Liberals stayed home. But now, they're rallying behind Mary MacDonald, 52, Ms. McLellan's former deputy chief of staff, who is giving Mr. Hawn a run for his money.

But she'll have to keep up with him.

"Don't ever miss a house," Mr. Hawn, 63, said on Monday as he zigzagged down a street, regularly jogging and slowed up only by his knee brace.

At the doors, Mr. Hawn carried the party banner on every issue, including the military mission in Afghanistan ("A tough story, but a success story"), a committee finding Conservative leader Stephen Harper in contempt of Parliament (A "kangaroo court," Mr. Hawn scoffed), the budget and economy ("We own those files") and opposition complaints about an untendered fighter-plane contract ("Lies," he told one homeowner).

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But even a dynamo encounters opposition.

"I'm a little torn about what to do. Do I vote for the man, or the party? I'm getting a little fed up with the party," Bonnie Barbeau, a nurse and mother of two, told him on Monday. "Laurie's a good guy. Laurie might have good ideas [but] I don't like the partisan vote thing."

That disenchantment is what had the Liberals eyeing this riding, which includes the downtown core.

"The base is certainly back. It will be a sprint to the finish," Ms. MacDonald said. However, she's not the only challenger, and any disenchanted voters are being split - she and New Democrat Lewis Cardinal, 49, have both been campaigning since 2009.

Ms. MacDonald insists the Liberals are "the only other player in the game." Mr. Cardinal dismisses that as a myth.

"The Liberals are saying if you don't vote for us, you vote for Laurie Hawn… it doesn't add up," he said.

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Another battleground is Edmonton Strathcona, where incumbent New Democrat Linda Duncan is seeking to fend off Conservative challenger Ryan Hastman. Both camps expect the race will go down to the wire.

In Edmonton East, New Democrats are hoping to pull off another upset. Former provincial NDP leader Ray Martin is taking on five-term MP Peter Goldring, a Conservative.

Mr. Martin, 69, returned to politics in 2008 and took a surprising 31 per cent of the vote, well short of Mr. Goldring's 51 per cent but nearly identical to Ms. Duncan's totals in 2006. She won on her next try, and Mr. Martin hopes to do the same. His former riding and that of current provincial NDP leader Brian Mason lie within Edmonton East.

"Put it this way - we're very encouraged," he said.

Mr. Goldring suggested that a vote split would help the Conservatives, saying the Liberals are "surging" and "doing their part in the riding." He defended his record, including spearheading a low-income housing project in the city.

Finally, a tight race between two conservatives has emerged again in Edmonton-Sherwood Park, where many locals are supporting Independent James Ford as a rebuke of Conservative Tim Uppal. They accuse Mr. Uppal of being parachuted into the typically safe seat. Mr. Uppal narrowly won in 2008, and Mr. Ford is challenging him again.

All told, the campaign's final days have brought a rare political fervour to the province.

"Unfortunately, there's this stereotype across the country that's wrong - they think everybody [in Alberta]is a right-wing conservative. We don't all just rally around a right-wing voice," Mr. Martin said, nonetheless adding: "We know it's going to be close if you take a Conservative on in Alberta."

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