Political heavyweight Jim Prentice only signalled his clear intention to join the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race last week and has already become the contest favourite.
However, that doesn't mean it will be a cakewalk, especially as some true-blue conservatives view him suspiciously as a "Red Tory." In this vein, the Official Opposition Wildrose party, to the right of the PCs, has already attempted to link him to former premier Alison Redford, who resigned in March facing a swirl of criticism over her spending – travel and otherwise – and near-internal party revolt.
To address the criticism head-on, Mr. Prentice's team has recruited Jay Hill, the congenial former Prince George-Peace River MP with impeccable Reform party and federal Conservative cred.
Mr. Hill, who now lives in Calgary, is a close friend of Mr. Prentice's and will act as co-chair of the leadership campaign, joining the growing Prentice team to make the former federal cabinet minister and CIBC executive into the next Alberta premier.
"One of the things that annoys me to no end because I know the man – and I posted this to my Facebook page the other night – is this red Tory label," Mr. Hill, the former Conservative whip and House leader, said in an interview.
"He is not a red Tory. He is a conservative, tried and true. And you know, if it means he has a commitment to listening to everyone, then he's a conservative who has a heart.
"But I think he's been unfairly labelled and I want to ensure that I'm standing there with him to make that point."
Last week, the Official Opposition Wildrose party pointed out Ms. Redford did her law articling in Mr. Prentice's Rooney Prentice law office and Leader Danielle Smith said the two come from "the same circle of Red Tories." The "Red Tory" moniker – decried by some, taken as a compliment by others – might also stem from his extensive work with First Nations, his involvement in environmental suits as a lawyer, or his ties to the old federal Progressive Conservative party, including a leadership run in 2003.
The Wildrose is up against Mr. Prentice's reputation as capable and moderate party stalwart (Prime Minister Stephen Harper called him government's "chief operating officer" as he departed federal politics in 2010). Mr. Hill said he has become a part of the campaign because of Mr. Prentice's "integrity, ethics and humility."
Mr. Hill joins Calgary corporate lawyer Doug Schweitzer, a former chief executive of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, who will serve as campaign manager.
But another potential wildcard for Mr. Prentice is the involvement of another old friend, Randy Dawson, the brash conservative campaigner now based in Toronto but has strong roots in Alberta as a disciple of former premier Peter Lougheed. Mr. Dawson, a principal in the high-powered public relations firm of Navigator, will be a part of the campaign in some way, although it's not clearly defined yet, according to a member of the campaign team.
Ms. Smith of the Wildrose has already made the Navigator connection, and noted the recent controversy over the $240,000 crisis communications contract the firm was awarded by the Redford government during the 2013 floods.
Mr. Dawson, a tough-minded campaigner who rarely speaks to reporters, also ran the Alberta PC campaign in 2008 for former premier Ed Stelmach, and acted as an adviser in the 2012 election campaign that saw the PCs under Ms. Redford defeat the Wildrose.
Who exactly will be in the race is likely to become clear on May 15th, when the party officially opens the race. Provincial cabinet ministers such as the Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver – the latter a fiscal hawk likely to attract the fiscal conservatives who haven't yet migrated to the Wildrose – are two of a group of cabinet ministers mulling a run who are likely to also throw their names in the race.
But the two men who have already declared their intention to run in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race – Mr. Prentice and another former provincial cabinet minister, Ken Hughes – also have close connections. The two are long-time friends who jointly owned a Kananaskis Country cabin in Alberta's Rocky Mountains for a dozen years (Mr. Hughes bought out Mr. Prentice's share a few years ago).
Not only do the two have a similar taste in real estate, but are also dividing Progressive Conservative troops that have worked together in the past. Mr. Dawson and Mr. Hughes are also close. In some respects, Mr. Hughes, 60, and Mr. Prentice draw from a similar base of support from a Calgary (and some Edmonton) group of business leaders and Tories on the "Progressive" or "Clarkies" side of the political spectrum – many of whom also supported Ms. Redford at one time.
However, Mr. Hughes – born in High River, raised in Longview, with an undergrad degree in agriculture and experience serving on the agriculture committee when he was an MP for the rural riding of Macleod – might have an advantage in rural Alberta.
Mr. Prentice's advantages include his high profile, his meticulously kept membership lists dating back to an unsuccessful provincial run in 1986, and the potential access to membership lists from friendly Alberta MPs.
But Mr. Prentice also faces the fearsome Alberta PC curse of the frontrunner, the downfall of Tory luminaries such as Nancy MacBeth, Jim Dinning and Gary Mar. While the party has changed the contest rules to make the final leadership vote a two-horse race – intended to put a kibosh on the possibility of a third-place challenger coming up the middle – some experienced hands say Mr. Prentice's victory is far from certain.
Two-time PC party leadership contender and Calgary businessman Rick Orman said it will come down to salesmanship, and who can sell the most party memberships.
"It's not going to be a slam dunk," said Mr. Orman, who also had Mr. Prentice serve on his own 1992 PC party leadership bid.
"When was the last time a frontrunner won this thing?"
Kelly Cryderman is a reporter in The Globe's Calgary bureau.