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Gary Mar's comparative openness to a degree of private delivery of publicly funded health care would benefit Alberta, if he wins on the final ballot in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership election on Saturday.

By contrast, Alison Redford, who was in second place on the first ballot on Sept. 17, has been emphatic in her support for publicly delivered and publicly paid-for health care. (Most unfortunately, she has had to interrupt her campaign because of her mother's death this week.)

It is hard to know what to make of Mr. Mar's reported taste for quoting Niccolo Machiavelli, though it is safe to say that he does not endorse the Florentine civil servant-philosopher-historian's advocacy of fraud and cruelty. Of all the candidates in the campaign, he had by far the largest number of Conservative MLAs supporting him on the first round (26) – which is noteworthy evidence of the esteem of his colleagues, though it doubtless also reflects a desire to curry favour with the expected future premier. If so, some will be disappointed, because Mr. Mar has undertaken to form a smaller cabinet, if he wins, which would be a welcome change from the widespread propensity of cabinets to expand.

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Mr. Mar's 41-per-cent lead on the first ballot, compared with 19 per cent for Ms. Redford and 15 per cent for Doug Horner, will be difficult to overcome. Ms. Redford, however, is no opportunist, having let it be known that Doug Horner is her second choice – the leadership election on Oct. 1 will consist of a preferential ballot, having the effect of a two-stage vote. Mr. Horner has an admirable depth of experience in business and politics, but he is now a long shot for the leadership.

Within the spectrum of Alberta Conservative politics, Mr. Mar has appeared to be a centrist. Consequently, his non-dogmatic view of medicare surprised some people. It may have helped him to gain the second-ballot support of the two more conservative candidates, Ted Morton and Rick Orman, after the first round. And it may equip him to fend off the challenge of the immoderate Wildrose Party in the next provincial election.

Mr. Mar's extroverted personality (unlike Premier Ed Stelmach's) served him well in his four years as Alberta's envoy in Washington. If he becomes premier, his ability to make his presence felt will be valuable for Alberta, and for Canada. The oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline plainly need a strong Canadian defender in the United States.

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