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Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith walk together in Edmonton on Dec. 17, 2014.The Canadian Press

Danielle Smith is far from a lock to win the United Conservative Party leadership race and become the next premier of Alberta in October. But momentum was surely on her side during this key week of politics in the province, as politicians pressed the flesh during the Calgary Stampede. She is forcing everyone to talk about provincial autonomy on her terms, and dragging her party’s leadership race to the right.

It’s an astounding political rehabilitation. When Ms. Smith first raised the idea of running for the UCP leadership last fall – noting it only should happen should Jason Kenney leave – conservatives told me, unprompted, they didn’t want to see her brand of opportunism back leading the fold.

They were still disillusioned over her decision in December of 2014 as Wildrose Party leader to cross the floor, along with eight of her MLAs, to Jim Prentice’s governing Progressive Conservatives. It was seen as a betrayal by many in her party who had worked long hours to build a new grassroots organization and keep a check on PC spending and entitlement.

To this day, Ms. Smith insists conservatives in the province must be united to beat the NDP, but she acknowledges not everyone was ready for that step eight years ago. “I have done my part to cause many of you to lose trust in politicians and in government. I let you down in 2014, I know that. It was a mistake. Everyone knows that,” she told a rally at a hotel ballroom in northeast Calgary on Thursday evening.

Since Ms. Smith lost the PC nomination contest in Highwood in 2015 – and Mr. Prentice lost the election to the NDP – she steered clear of elected politics (until now). But she’s always kept her hand in it, hosting a news and talk show on private radio, as well as emceeing various conferences and speeches. It’s been a slow burn, but she’s stayed in the public eye.

Her strategy seems to have been at least a partial success. And political memories are, for the moment, being overtaken by a relentless barrage of Smith campaigning and policy.

This week, she made sure everyone knew she had no problem raising and submitting the steep $175,000 fee to enter the UCP leadership race. Some well-heeled downtown Calgary UCP donors giving money to her campaign think it would be better to have another woman squaring off against political powerhouse Rachel Notley, the NDP leader who wants her job as premier back (a logic that also applies to the three other women in the UCP race).

Travis Toews, the former finance minister who was considered the clear UCP front runner a month ago, showed he was on the defensive Thursday with a tweet calling plans for an Alberta sovereignty act an “economic disaster.”

Of course, that is a reference to Ms. Smith’s Alberta First strategy. She said if she becomes premier, she will introduce legislation that would allow Alberta to reject federal dictates, including vaccine mandates. Other UCP leadership candidates are being forced to respond to this line of discussion, whether they like it or not. This week, Howard Anglin – the academic and the former principal secretary to Mr. Kenney – said her Alberta sovereignty act would be better named the Alberta Suicide Act for all the investment and business it will chase away.

“Politicians have to be careful to keep their rhetoric in line with reality,” Mr. Anglin wrote on the Hub website. “In politics, scams like the Alberta Sovereignty Act have real-life consequences. If Smith or any other leader is foolish enough to follow this fraudulent scheme, real jobs will be lost, and real people will suffer.”

Ms. Smith pushed back against critics on Thursday, saying “what the Eastern media doesn’t quite understand is that we are at a very, very tender point right now in our relationship with the rest of the county.

“Part of what I put forward with the Alberta sovereignty act is to make sure that we can address those concerns, and give one last chance at changing our relationship with Canada.”

The “last chance” talk sounds dire. She is also leading the push for votes from conservatives deeply mistrustful of federal vaccine policies. On Ryan Jespersen’s Real Talk podcast, Ms. Smith said Alberta Health Services was either incompetent or tried to sabotage the Kenney government during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it wasn’t able to provide more than 1,000 ICU beds. This ignores the fact AHS was also trying to keep other medical services going.

She has called for the greater use of early stage “therapeutics” in treating COVID-19, including Ivermectin – even though its maker and regulating bodies haven’t approved its use for the disease.

And of course, political momentum now – in the middle of summer – is no guarantee Ms. Smith will win a ranked UCP leadership ballot in October. Even if the term front runner becomes attached to her name, that’s no automatic victory. Just ask former politicos Jim Dinning or Gary Mar how well that description worked out for them.

But releasing such strident policy pieces relatively early in a conservative leadership race has benefits beyond getting everyone’s attention in the here and now, and having them forget some of it later. If Ms. Smith does become premier and pass an Alberta sovereignty act in the fall, there are months for her to show the province it will be used only in a limited political fashion – before she faces voters in a May, 2023, provincial election. She has also couched her tough talk on Thursday, saying the act itself would send a message to Ottawa – and “we may never have to invoke it if they stay in their own lane.”

Ms. Smith also argues against “cancel culture,” saying she doesn’t agree on everything with everyone she appears on stage with, and that’s okay. She certainly tested that theory by having former NHL star Theo Fleury speak at her rally Thursday. He’s known for his personal story of how he suffered as a young player at the hands of coach Graham James, his advocacy for mental health and people who have experienced abuse, trauma and addictions.

But as of late, Mr. Fleury has become better known for a Twitter account that promotes vaccine and globalist conspiracy theories, and calls for the arrest of federal politicians. At Thursday’s rally, he talked about governments using the same tactics as pedophiles during the pandemic, including “manipulation, coercion, lying, cheating, stealing,” and described Ms. Smith as “a leader who is saying all the right things.”

Ms. Smith talked about Mr. Fleury’s contributions to better discussions about mental health, and made a point of saying she was never a part of the World Economic Forum’s youth programs.

Another part of Ms. Smith’s political history is almost winning the provincial election in 2012. She was expected to become premier, even up to the day of the election, but was taken down by voter concern about the most socially conservative elements in her Wildrose Party.

Social conservatives are not the force in the UCP they once were, but “freedom”-focused, anti-establishment and vaccine-skeptic members make up a significant part of the base. They are a group partially responsible for the results of Mr. Kenney’s anemic support in his leadership review and his early departure from the Premier’s office. His catering to them alienated other Alberta voters.

Ms. Smith is appealing to them, and arguing this time, she will be able to handle the heat.

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