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The Globe and Mail

Questions Alberta's PC leadership hopefuls may face as gloves come off

Gary Mar gestures as he speaks to the media at the Legislature in Edmonton, Thursday, Oct.14, 2004.

Walter Tychnowicz/CP

It took months, but the gloves may finally be coming off in the race to win the leadership of Alberta's governing Progressive Conservative Party.

Gary Mar attacked the crime record of rival and former justice minister Alison Redford last week to middling results. The candidates will hold their third party debate this week, but some remain cautious to risk an attack during the summer.

"No one's paying attention yet," one campaign manager said. "You don't go negative until such time as you need to."

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Nonetheless, we offer some unsolicited advice to the campaigns, should they be looking to land another blow, about the questions hanging over each candidate. The suggestions were gathered with the help of campaign workers and Mount Royal University Political Scientist Duane Bratt. They're presented in the order a recent Edmonton Journal-Calgary Herald poll placed the candidates in.

1) Gary Mar

Perhaps because he's the perceived frontrunner, many are only too keen to point out Mr. Mar's image problems.

Some are obvious and well-publicized. When he left his job as an MLA in 2007, he said he'd defer the severance payment he'd amassed because he was sidestepping over into a government job as the province's advocate in Washington. Then he changed his mind and, sometime over the next 16 months, cashed a $478,499 cheque, according to provincial documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. "That's a classic example of double-dipping," Prof. Bratt says.

Then there's about roughly $389,000 paid out by Mr. Mar's ministry to a consulting company owned by his former aide, Kelley Charlebois, who is now a key figure in his campaign. The contract was untendered and the work undocumented.

Some question campaign tactics. Rival Alison Redford's supporters, for instance, complain a young Mar supporter called into a Mar-Redford radio debate last week under a fake name to lob a softball question at Mr. Mar. A Mar spokesman refused to confirm or deny the allegation, only saying it doesn't "censor" its volunteers but wouldn't condone lying.

Then there's Tim Mahoney, a former Florida Congressman who sparked a scandal by admitting to several affairs and failed in his re-election bid. Mr. Mahoney does government relations work in Calgary and has been seen at Mar events, raising some eyebrows. Mr. Mar told the Globe Mr. Mahoney is a friend who has no role on the campaign - and then claimed to have not heard about the affairs that preceded Mr. Mahoney's high-profile exit from politics.

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Finally, Mr. Mar was health minister at a time during which a former PC MLA, physician Raj Sherman, alleges political interference led to poor patient care and deaths. It's the subject of a provincial investigation, yet Mr. Mar has faced few questions from rivals on it.

2) Ted Morton

Mr. Morton is man behind the unpopular Alberta Land Stewardship Act, one of three land bills some law professors say are needed but that a rival party, Wildrose, has used as a wedge issue. "He was the land use framework guy, and for a guy who needs support in rural Alberta, he's lost it," Prof. Bratt says. However, his rivals may not touch the issue - Wildrose already is sounding the alarm, and four of the five other candidates were part of the government that tabled the law.

He repeatedly tells crowds he's the only candidate to win back supporters who have fled to Wildrose, but support for Wildrose has dwindled. Rivals may begin reminding Mr. Morton his bridge-building might no longer be needed.

However, Mr. Morton is not the type to shy away from his beliefs or record. As such, it's unlikely he'll be on the defensive - his issues are already well-known. "It's one of those things," one rival campaign staffer said. "When you start throwing mud, you get mud thrown back."

3) Alison Redford

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Ms. Redford flip-flopped on the same land law that's giving Mr. Morton trouble - she only started complaining about it once she began running for leader, in what smacked of a ploy by the Calgary lawyer to win easy rural votes. This would be the most obvious public attack a rival could make.

Whisper attacks are where she's more vulnerable. She is firmly a red Tory, one who risks being branded as too liberal for the PC base. Some might cite Ms. Redford's plan to significantly increase Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) payments as an example of such leanings.

Ms. Redford also once tried to win away a federal Conservative nomination from MP Rob Anders. Bad blood likely remains from that failed attempt, which Prof. Bratt believes may lead to some sort of attack. Mr. Anders is backing Mr. Morton.

Finally, Ms. Redford has only been an MLA since 2008, leaving her few skeletons but also little government experience.

4) Doug Horner (tie)

Mr. Horner's Achilles heel is obvious - his resume and campaign strategy are a clone of those of Ed Stelmach, the unpopular outgoing leader and premier. "Ed Stelmach 2.0," says one rival campaign manager. Mr. Stelmach's tumultuous tenure has left the party at something of a crossroads. Both are central Alberta farmers with a folksy streak.

"This would just be seen as the second coming," Prof. Bratt says. Each rival candidate has not been shy in distancing themselves from Mr. Stelmach, but have - so far - stopped short of equating their criticisms to Mr. Horner.

5) Rick Orman (tie)

Two words: Don Getty. Mr. Orman was a cabinet member in the Getty government that nearly sank PC fortunes 20 years ago, with large deficits and low poll ratings. Nonetheless, Mr. Orman has positioned himself with Mr. Morton on the right wing of the field of candidates and nabbed staffers away from Wildrose, a small-government libertarian challenger party. It has perplexed some observers.

"If you're advertising yourself as a fiscal conservative, and you look at the fiscal record of the Getty government - I remain mystified as to why he's running," Prof. Bratt says.

Mr. Orman has also refused to release his donors list (only Mr. Mar and Ms. Redford have) while using a chartered plane to travel to some events. "Where's the money coming from?" one source from another campaign said. However, Mr. Orman isn't yet viewed as a frontrunner, suggesting he'll likely be on the attack, not the defensive.

6) Doug Griffiths

Little controversy here. Mr. Griffiths isn't perceived to be a serious contender, but he does command a following in vote-rich rural areas. In other words, he's not a big enough fish to go after, but other candidates want to be on his good side in hopes of roping in his supporters. They won't soon attack him.

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