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Redford gives Alberta Tories hope for even bigger majority

Alberta Premier Allison Redford listens during the budget speech in Edmonton on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 at the Alberta Legislature.

Ian Jackson/Ian Jackson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Some of Alberta Premier Alison Redford's closest advisers are predicting that the Progressive Conservative Party's current seat total of 67 is merely a base from which to build an even bigger majority.

If that internal confidence translates on election day – which must be held before May 31 – the 41-year-old Tory government could add a dozen more seats in the soon-to-be expanded legislature, which will house 87 members. The current complement is 83.

In any other jurisdiction, a party that has been in government for four decades would likely be considered stale – vulnerable to support shifting toward hungry opposition parties. Instead, since Ms. Redford was selected as party leader little more than four months ago, the province has renewed its love affair with the Tories.

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"I think she set a whole new tone," said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Various polls have reflected the public's support for Ms. Redford's style of politics. If the pollsters are to be believed, the Tories are well out in front of the right-wing Wildrose Party, which under Danielle Smith appears poised to take over as the Official Opposition. Meanwhile, the left-leaning Liberals, currently the second-place party, and the NDP, spunky despite holding only two seats, are left battling for a distant third.

Prof. Brownsey wouldn't be surprised if the Tories captured an even bigger majority than Ms. Redford's predecessor, Ed Stelmach, managed to orchestrate in 2008 when his party took 72 seats, and perhaps rival the infamous "Ralph's world" performance in 2001 by then-premier Ralph Klein, who enjoyed a 74-seat romp.

With Ms. Redford, according to Prof. Brownsey, the Tories now appeal to the broad middle of the political spectrum. The party has let Wildrose venture off to the right, while at the same time taking support from the flailing left, notably the sinking Liberals under rookie captain Raj Sherman.

"The collapse of the Liberals has been a very good thing for Alison Redford and the Tories," he said.

A Return on Insight poll released just before last week's budget found that 46 per cent of decided voters said they would back the Tories, compared with 24 per cent who supported Wildrose. An earlier, but still recent, Leger Marketing poll put PC support at 53 per cent compared with 16 per cent for Wildrose.

Meanwhile, as Tory candidates and supporters attended campaign school over the weekend, internal polling showed "very positive" support for Ms. Redford's recently unveiled big-spending budget, according to insiders.

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Harold Jansen, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, agreed that the Tories are set up to form an even larger majority government.

"To me, the Wildrose, at this point, doesn't look like their are threatening to replace the Conservatives," he said.

Soon after Ms. Smith was selected leader in 2009, the party began rising in the polls. By 2010, Wildrose surpassed the Tories and attracted unhappy Tory MLAs, who crossed the floor to eventually bring Wildrose representation in the legislature to four.

But support, according to the polls, waned.

"They peaked two years too soon," said Prof. Jansen.

But Vitor Marciano, the former executive director of the Wildrose Party, who is now running under the party's banner in the provincial Senate vote, doesn't put much stock in the polls. Mr. Marciano, who is also grooming political hopefuls, expects voter turnout to be higher in this election than the dismally low 40-per-cent turnout in 2008. By his estimation, there is more support to the centre-right than the centre-left.

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"It's really rare for an opposition party to be in the lead going into the election," he added.

History also provides an interesting lesson.

In 1971, Peter Lougheed, who kick-started the Tory dynasty, was firmly in second behind the Social Credit Party with 10 seats, but wound up on top.

"To our surprise, we ended up winning 49 and forming the government," Mr. Lougheed recently recalled.

Stephen Carter, Ms. Redford's chief of staff, who is known for his Midas touch on political campaigns, isn't counting on anything until election day.

"I am a real believer that elections matter; campaigns matter," he said. "I've seen it happen time and time again and I'm certainly not taking anything for granted. We will campaign as though we're behind in 87 ridings."

That may be why Mr. Carter is considering aiding the campaigns in battleground ridings, despite Ms. Redford's lofty poll numbers. Those ridings include one in Edmonton, where Mr. Sherman is seeking re-election, and one in Airdrie, where prominent Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson is running. Both are former Tories.

One campaign Mr. Carter says he hasn't jumped to is that of Health Minister Fred Horne¸ who nonetheless is facing a fight. Mr. Horne beat a Liberal incumbent by a mere 58 votes in the 2008 provincial election and will face a tough test against the same candidate and a Wildrose challenger. He won't say whether he's getting help from Ms. Redford's office.

"I have all kinds of volunteers and all kinds of people I turn to for advice, so I'm not going to answer specifics about my campaign," Mr. Horne said, "We don't even have an election yet."

With files from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton

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Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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