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Politics Insiders, critics betting on Alberta Premier’s survival at PC party review

Alberta Premier Alison Redford speaks in Toronto on Nov. 15, 2013.

MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Alberta Premier Alison Redford heads into an internal party review this weekend with both Progressive Conservative insiders and fervent critics predicting she will survive the leadership test.

A combination of factors, including Ms. Redford's sturdy performance during the June floods, the party's revenue problems and desire to show internal unity, and a dearth of organized challengers means the Friday and Saturday party convention in Red Deer, Alta., is unlikely to spur a new PC leadership race.

While the immediate threat to the Premier has waned, the long political game still presents a challenge. For instance, Stephen Mandel – who retired as Edmonton mayor last month, and whose name often pops up as a potential party leader – will attend the convention as a self-described "tire kicker."

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The popular municipal leader refused to speak directly about whether he is interested in Ms. Redford's job, but Mr. Mandel has often been at odds with her government. After the province's cost-cutting budget this spring, Mr. Mandel lashed out over a $147-million chop to post-secondary funding that hit the capital city particularly hard.

"We have a leader, and that's that," Mr. Mandel, 68, said in an interview this week. "No matter what I say, it's going to fuel more fire."

On the question of how Ms. Redford will fare in the leadership review, he said, "She should do okay, I guess."

Former party campaign manager Susan Elliott, a key Redford ally, said given the difficult financial decisions the government has faced in the past year, she would be satisfied with any level of support above 50 per cent. "Anything in the 60s is good. And anything in the 70s is actually a triumph."

Although the Premier's party won a majority just 19 months ago based in part on a pledge to balance the books, this year saw the introduction of a deficit budget amid declining oil sands revenue. The opposition has been able to make hay out of number of health care and fiscal issues, including the quick approval of a $1.1-million temporary gymnasium for a flooded school in Ms. Redford's wealthy constituency.

But in June, when the massive river flooding hit southern Alberta, Ms. Redford's constant presence on the front lines of the disaster, along with the quick disbursement of aid, got positive reviews. The Premier has made regular trips to Washington to lobby for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. In recent weeks, the government has announced tens of millions in new spending, including restoring a portion of cut post-secondary funding, and announced the "framework" for oil pipeline agreements with the B.C. government.

It would also be a stretch of the party's resources to hold a leadership race. The once-wealthy central party organization – which has seen its donation levels drop even while its riding associations thrive – borrowed more than $646,000 against the PC's $1.6-million rainy day fund, the Tapcal Trust, to wage an expensive election campaign to snatch victory from the Wildrose last year. And although the Premier's popularity has suffered in recent polls, only up to 1,600 party members – including hundreds of carefully selected delegates – get to cast a ballot in this weekend's leadership review.

The Wildrose Party leader also believes the Premier will survive. "She's pulled out all the stops in the last couple of weeks to try to win some votes," Danielle Smith said.

Given the format of the vote, Ms. Redford and her supporters are also wary of delegates who publicly pledge allegiance, but vote for a leadership race once they are alone in the ballot booth. Although it was hard to find Tories who admitted to voting against former premier Ralph Klein in his leadership review in 2006, he received the confidence of only 55 per cent of party members and was pushed into resigning.

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