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Former cabinet minister and Calgary MP, Jim Prentice, speaks at the Alberta PC Party Leader's Dinner in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, May 8, 2014.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Alberta Progressive Conservatives issued more apologies and promises to end controversies over expenses at their main Calgary fundraising dinner – but all eyes were on Jim Prentice and his expected leadership bid.

As chairman of the dinner, Mr. Prentice helped sell tickets and attract a record crowd of 1,800 people to the $500-a-plate dinner in which the main event was supposed to be a speech from Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, who is serving in the interim before the September leadership vote.

Mr. Prentice recognized business leaders and long-time party members in brief opening remarks that already had all the hallmarks of someone gunning for political office.

"It's a great night," he said. "And ladies and gentlemen, it's just the beginning."

Mr. Prentice, 57, walked into the convention hall wearing a tie in the Alberta Tory colours of blue and orange. While members of his campaign team have said he will join the party's leadership race in the days ahead, he has so far avoided an official confirmation.

"Stay tuned, but it's going to be an exciting time," Mr. Prentice told reporters.

The former federal cabinet minister turned banking executive was chairman of the fundraising dinner even before Alison Redford announced her resignation in March, and party insiders said he was responsible for about half the ticket sales Thursday night. Mr. Redford was pushed to quit by major dissent within her party over her demanding leadership style, and controversy about the money her office spent. Now the party is grappling with 20-per-cent approval ratings and debt from the 2012 campaign. The fundraising dollars are desperately needed to rebuild the party's war chest to fight the 2016 election against the well-funded Wildrose.

Mr. Prentice praised Mr. Hancock for speaking out about the need to better use taxpayers' dollars, and for apologizing to party grassroots members.

While Mr. Prentice is the perceived front-runner, no Alberta PC would say his victory is a lock. Supposed favourites have lost the last two leadership races to lesser-known political rivals. And on Wednesday, fiscal conservative Ric McIver, 55, announced his intention to enter the race with promises to cut spending and cronyism.

Mr. McIver joins Mr. Prentice and former cabinet minister Ken Hughes, 60, in the race that will officially launch on May 15. Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner announced late Thursday he would not be entering the race.

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