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alberta election

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith speaks to supporters as the Alberta election kicks off in Calgary on March 26, 2012.Chris Bolin

A new poll has put Alberta's Wildrose Party firmly on track for a majority government, holding a 13-point lead over the incumbent Progressive Conservatives who just months ago were a shoo-in for victory.

The poll, conducted by ThinkHQ Public Affairs Inc. for CTV News, is the latest in a string showing clear patterns: the PCs are sinking, Wildrose is surging and people prefer the Wildrose leader Danielle Smith to PC leader Alison Redford.

"It just continues the trend and it sort of manifests the momentum they've had last week," ThinkHQ pollster Marc Henry said, adding time is running out for Ms. Redford and the PCs. "They've got an awfully big hole dug for themselves."

It leaves Alberta poised to elect a right-wing government in lock-step with the Reform wing of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, one that will embrace its energy industry, slow spending growth and turn to tax credits and rebates to lower taxes in what is already Canada's lowest-tax province.

The poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday through an online panel of 1,050 respondents and shows the right-wing Wildrose at 43 per cent of decided voters, the PCs at 30, the New Democrats at 12 and the Liberals at 11 per cent province-wide. Of those sampled, 19 per cent were undecided.

Critically, Wildrose leads in every region, including centrist Edmonton, but the libertarian party wasn't picking its cabinet yet, saying there's plenty of campaign left.

"There is strong support for Wildrose across Alberta; obviously there is an appetite for change. That said, the only poll that really counts is the one on April 23rd [election day]" Wildrose campaign spokeswoman Heather Hume said in an e-mail.

Ms. Redford was similarly dismissive, and has repeatedly refused to discuss poll results, which have gone from bad to worse for her party since showing them in a tie on the first day of the campaign. (Staff say she doesn't actually look at most polls, but she's asked regularly about their results.)

"I've never commented on polls except to say that election day will be the day when Albertans decide," she said during a campaign stop in Taber, Alta. "I think what we're going to see, and have seen, is there are ups and downs. It's certainly a volatile time. I think Albertans are quite engaged. I'm pleased to see Albertans are thinking about the long-term policy issues."

Several issues have driven the poll numbers, but all can basically be traced back to this: Ms. Redford has been campaigning for cosmopolitan Alberta, speaking about big-government issues and complex promises for healthcare, international trade and economic diversification, while Ms. Smith has been campaigning to traditional Alberta, relying on tangible, simple messaging and selling, essentially, a small-government, libertarian conservative option.

While the PCs have been on the defensive during the campaign's gaffe-filled first week, the Wildrose campaign (run by former Harper advisor Tom Flanagan) has avoided trouble and struck a populist tone - publicly admonishing columnists who disagree with their platform and casting their campaign as an us-against-the-elites underdog for Alberta conservatives.

The PC problems date back to before the campaign, though.

The PCs have coped with a series of controversies, in particular an all-party, PC-led committee that hasn't met since 2008 but paid members $1,000 a month. That issue exploded last month. Since the last election, under the leadership of former premier Ed Stelmach, they quietly voted huge raises for cabinet and ran massive deficits. They were said to have "intimidated" doctors and interfered in the health system.

Ms. Redford, 47, won her party's leadership on Oct. 1 of last year, casting it in a centrist vision for the province in line with that of former Premier Peter Lougheed, who kicked off the PC dynasty in 1971. She has since refused to call a full health inquiry, which she had pledged to do, or set a fixed election date, choosing a three-month fixed election "season" instead. She also clashed with her caucus, and many MLAs decided not to run again with her as leader, leaving the party in a rebirth as it seeks a new mandate. Some MLAs dropped out days or weeks before the campaign began.

Wildrose's messages have been straight-forward - it would cap spending increases, defer major infrastructure projects, tuck money away into the provincial Heritage Trust Fund and explore more private delivery of public healthcare.

More broadly, it has cast itself as a true conservative alternative to Ms. Redford, who comes from the progressive flank of the PC party. Ms. Redford, in turn, has blasted Wildrose's "simple" views, saying the province can't be "fortress Alberta."

Wedge issues have also played a role in recent weeks.

Ms. Redford (a human rights lawyer) refused to take a passing reference to the Human Rights Act out of her comprehensive education bill, which is backed by teachers and school boards. Wildrose would abolish the Alberta Human Rights Commission altogether and has attracted support from people (including religious groups and home schoolers) who don't want human rights act referenced in the education bill. (Other opposition parties, the NDP and Liberals, say referencing the act doesn't actually change the bill.)

Ms. Redford introduced stronger penalties for impaired driving beginning at 0.05 blood-alcohol level, including a three-day driving suspension (previously, police could briefly suspend your license if caught between 0.05 and 0.08, at which point criminal charges kick in). Other provinces have made similar moves - in Saskatchewan, penalties begin at 0.04 - but Wildrose called it a nanny state move that infringed on freedoms.

The party handed out coasters saying the province shouldn't penalize anything that isn't in the criminal code. That has won them support in rural areas, with Ms. Smith, 41, claiming hyperbolically last week and in her stump speech that: "You have a sip of wine these days, with this government, and they'll tow your car away."

Another issue is land rights - the PCs were forced to overhaul a controversial land use bill. Some university law professors said it actually went too far in entrenching land rights; the PCs said it was just right; and Wildrose said it didn't go far enough, telling its supporters it was a land grab.

Those issues, however minor they may seem, are putting entire ridings out of reach. Ms. Redford on Tuesday made a stop in the sprawling rural riding of Little Bow. At one rally, the local campaign manager hoped for 40 PC supporters and got roughly half that - PC voters are afraid to let their neighbours know, amid the uproar over drunk driving laws and the Human Rights Commission, that they're voting PC, she said.

That said, Ms. Redford hasn't changed her approach.

"We're going to stick to that plan," she said Tuesday outside a pharmacy in Taber. "We're really very proud of this campaign. We're proud of our record as progressive conservatives. I'm certainly proud of what we've accomplished in the past six months," she said.

If these polls hold up, six months will be all Ms. Redford had. She is, staff say, looking forward to next week's televised debate, hoping she can defeat Ms. Smith - no debating slouch herself - to catch up.

Mr. Henry, the pollster, cautioned that the race isn't yet over. "Keep in mind you still have half a campaign to go," he said. His poll is considered accurate within three per cent.

In Calgary, Wildrose has 47 per cent, the PCs 29, Liberals 11, NDP 7 and the Alberta party 5, the poll showed. In Edmonton, Wildrose is at 31, PCs 30, Liberals 18, NDP 17 and Alberta Party 3. However, the margin of error is much higher in the cities, just over five per cent, because the sample sizes are just a few hundred.

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