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Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith pictured in a grassy field in Stettler Alberta on Friday April 13, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail./Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith pictured in a grassy field in Stettler Alberta on Friday April 13, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail./Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Danielle Smith: Is she Alberta's Sarah Palin, or the future of Canada? Add to ...

Ms. Smith was quick with her arguments and fervent in her beliefs. There were times when she and I were so far apart on issues that we might as well have been on different planets. Some of these opinions have come back to bite her. On the first day of the campaign, Ms. Redford blasted Ms. Smith’s support for legalized prostitution in a nine-year-old column.

“We’ve been prepared for that,” Ms. Smith assured me. “When your career has been in the public eye, you’re going to write some columns that are ultimately going to be raised and questioned. I fully expected that.”

She has always been libertarian on moral issues; her impulse is toward personal freedom, not legislated morality. She has expressed support in the past for de-listing abortion from medicare, but now says that as long as she’s party leader, there will never be legislation on such issues. Her government wouldn’t accept referendum questions that go against settled constitutional law, she insists, but acknowledges that some of her candidates are social conservatives who feel differently. The deal within the party, she insists, is that they all agree not to legislate on those points of contention.

“Contentious moral issues are issues that people deal with in their personal time not in their political party,” Ms. Smith said this week, under pressure from PCs trying to paint her party as extreme. “I am pro-choice and pro gay marriage, and my members of my party knew that when they elected me.”

After six years at the Herald, Ms. Smith ventured into television, as host of the national current-affairs program, Global Sunday. In 2006, she married the show’s Calgary-based producer, David Moretta.

When his wife became Wildrose leader, Mr. Moretta felt he had to leave Global Calgary, taking a national job with Sun TV. “We’ll have to talk about what he’ll do once the election is over,” says Ms. Smith. “It depends on the outcome. If I’m the opposition leader, that makes the choices easier for him.

“If I’m premier, and I hope Albertans make that choice – we’ll have to make another choice about what his next steps will be because he won’t be able to be in the media at that point.”

After her show was cancelled, she became a lobbyist, first with Alberta Property Rights Initiative and then with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). But she was really biding her time, looking for the right opportunity to finally run for political office at the provincial level.

Instead of moving further to the right with the Reform Party, she remained a committed PC supporter, secure in her belief that her views would be represented best by the legendary, decades-old government party. She finally made up her mind to run in 2008, but the riding she eyed in Calgary-North Hill didn’t materialize. Instead, it was Alison Redford who finally won her first provincial election as the MLA in Calgary-Elbow, after which she became justice minister under Premier Ed Stelmach.

Now she’s finally going to have her name on a provincial ballot – but as leader of a party that was created only weeks before Mr. Stelmach won a routine majority on March 3, 2008.

In an early warning sign that the public was finally ready to consider an alternative on the right, Wildrose captured seven per cent of the vote. That didn’t translate into a seat, but the party’s founders were encouraged – and they had their eye on Ms. Smith.

Link Byfield, scion of the conservative Alberta Report publisher, Ted Byfield, was an enthusiastic Wildroser and tried to convince her to leave the PCs and run for the party leadership. She declined.

“I thought the PCs could be changed from within. I’d try to change it from inside like the Klein era deep-six did,” she explains, referring to a group of fiscally conservative MLAs who nudged then-premier Ralph Klein toward balanced budgets in the early 1990s.

That group included Mr. Stelmach who, once he replaced Mr. Klein, broke decisively with that tradition. After the economy fell off the rails in 2009, he presided over a return to deficits, the first the province had seen in 15 years. That, combined with his drive for higher oil and gas royalties – a policy that came into effect just as prices plunged – lead Ms. Smith to reconsider her loyalty.

She was also concerned about her party’s attitude toward property rights, reflected in government bills that seemed to take little account of strong feeling about ownership in rural Alberta.

“I was at the CFIB at the time, and a colleague and I were sending excerpts of (NDP leader) Brian Mason’s speeches about how important property rights were,” she says. “What a topsy-turvy time when the NDP are defending landowner rights.”

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