It's happy hour in Wildrose country, but Danielle Smith doesn't dare have a drink.
"You have a sip of wine these days, with this government, and they'll tow your car away," the Wildrose Leader is telling a mob of supporters jammed into the back of a Best Western hotel.
"Bloody ridiculous!" a man in a chocolate-brown cowboy hat yells out.
It's 5 o'clock on a Thursday night and Ms. Smith is among her people. Airdrie is a Calgary-area bedroom community of 30,000 and one of the Wildrose Party's surest bets in the election campaign now under way. Meanwhile, the 40-year-old leader of the party to the right of Alberta's governing Progressive Conservatives is in an ebullient mood. As first weeks of election campaigns go, this one has been about as good as it gets.
Early polls show the Wildrose Party neck and neck with the Conservatives. Tory Leader Alison Redford has appeared somewhat rattled and uncomfortable with the nasty tone the campaign struck from Day 1. Ms. Smith, on the other hand, seems like she was born for this kind of bare-knuckle fight. And when the lights come on, and a microphone is thrust into her hand, the former television host's speeches are both personally compelling and politically effective.
Today, she talks about the importance of individual rights and freedoms, and how the governing Tories have become a nanny state. Wildrose is opposed to the government's strict new drinking-and-driving laws. Her one-liner about people getting their cars confiscated for having a sip of wine resonates with the libertarian types in the crowd.
For 20 minutes, Ms. Smith will walk the audience through the litany of scandals that have piled up on the doorstep of the Tory party that has held power in Alberta for 41 years. The various controversies have a common theme: sinful waste. If the governing party were a person, it'd be a corpulent drunk, asleep on some sidewalk, money pouring out of his pockets, having long ago stopped caring for himself – at least, that's the mental image one assembles from Ms. Smith's stock speech.
"Let's face it, for many of you who wanted a true conservative government, in the last few elections you've held your nose and marked your X beside the PCs," Ms. Smith says. "What choice did you have?"
She pauses for dramatic effect. "Well, I'm here to tell you that now you have a choice. Now you have a true conservative alternative that stands for lean, clean, fair government. One that understands that you don't work for the government – the government works for you."
The crowd is representative of the demographic that polls suggest is supporting Wildrose – older, more male than female (although there are certainly lots of women in this crowd) and more rancher than city slicker. It is Old Alberta, if you will – one that still responds to messages about less government, one that listens intently when Ms. Smith says the Tories want to erode their property rights, and one that is Alberta First and has no pretensions about playing a bigger role on the Canadian stage. Just leave us and our oil money alone, thank you very much.
In some respects, that is what this campaign is about, or certainly what Ms. Smith wants it to be about: two distinct visions of Alberta. A vote for Alison Redford is a vote for some kind of New Alberta, one that wants to exercise its economic and political might nationally. A vote for Danielle Smith is a vote for a simpler future, one focused on getting the province's financial affairs in order, one built on old-fashioned values: A deal's a deal; a handshake is your bond; look out for your neighbour; always be willing to lend a hand.
Ms. Smith is having a field day with a comment Ms. Redford made early on about wanting to change the "character" of Alberta.
"Well, I don't know about Alison Redford, but I love Alberta," she says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with our character. In fact, I don't think it's our character that needs changing – it's our government."
The crowd goes crazy. Ms. Smith smiles and waves. It's happy hour in Wildrose country.
Gary Mason is a national-affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail.