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Alberta Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith unveiled her party's campaign bus in Edmonton, Monday, March 19, 2012 shown in a photo taken from the social media website Twitter.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The so-called bust bus fiasco has sent Alberta's election off to a bizarre start – how was it that those two wheels ended up right there, directly under the neckline of a female politician's campaign bus photo? And was the reaction sexist?

With a campaign expected to officially begin next Monday, the right-wing, libertarian Wildrose Party unveiled its campaign bus at Alberta's legislature Monday. The bus is covered in a decal, or "wrap," with the Wildrose logo, website and a picture of its leader, Danielle Smith. But her head and shoulders are directly above the two back wheels, framing them.

The party received a proof of the design before approving it, but saw nothing amiss. "I saw it last week. Didn't even dawn on me," one (male) party staffer said.

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Twitter users, however, weren't as pure of mind – they quickly saw a double-entendre and a photo of the bus spread quickly online.

Wildrose initially played it down.

"Seriously? I sure hope that's not what this election is about," Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson said, adding he didn't know if they'd change the design. "If there are people that just can't get their minds out of the gutter, then we might have to look at doing that."

Later Monday afternoon, however, the party did just that – acknowledging it would change the wrap on the bus. Staff in the party's office in Alberta's legislature annex smiled, saying they were surprised how quickly the photo spread. But, after careful consideration, they struck a decidedly lighthearted tone about it.

"Glad to see everyone is so interested in our bus. ;) Guess we'll have to make a couple of changes huh?" Ms. Smith wrote via Twitter.

The gaffe isn't cheap. Wraps typically cost about $10,000, according to campaign staff and a local company that offers them. Wildrose raised $2.8-million in 2011, shattering its own record for opposition party fundraising, and hopes to mount a glitzy campaign in hopes of unseating the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives. Recent polls indicate it's on pace to form the official opposition.

Mr. Anderson had earlier said that he hoped the campaign – where the two main party leaders, Ms. Smith and Alberta Premier Alison Redford, are both female – will be more high-brow, suggesting Ms. Smith is being held to a double standard.

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"I guess the question is, if it was a male, would we have the same uproar? No, we wouldn't, so let's talk about the issues, and those folks that are dwelling on this should probably grow up a bit," he said.

University of Alberta political scientist Linda Trimble reviewed the party leadership race Ms. Smith won, and found the media coverage to be gender-neutral. Prof. Trimble, who has long studied the treatment of women in politics, said coverage of right-wing female leaders tends to be less sexualized than those with centre-left parties.

The early reaction to the Wildrose bus didn't seem to be an unfair treatment of a female leader, Prof. Trimble believes.

"Yes, it's fair. It's part of the campaign. It has news value because it's immediately quite striking. I'm reminded of Gilles Duceppe's hairnet photo," Prof. Trimble said, alluding to the former Bloc Québécois' leader's disastrous photo from the 1997 federal election campaign. What seemed different about the bus photo, she said, was its rapid spread through Facebook and Twitter.

"It's more of an issue about the role of social media than it is about the campaign bus. You don't need to say anything, you just circulate the image," said Prof. Trimble, who first saw the photo when a friend sent it. "She didn't have to say what the joke was. It seems really obvious to me."

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