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opinion

It wasn't that long ago the prevailing wisdom was that Alberta's Progressive Conservatives were done. Having begun to lose their way as a government years ago, the rocky premiership of Alison Redford all but assured that the party's historic reign would end. Or so it was thought.

Even former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice, who arrived as leader in September to rescue an iconic political institution that had been battered by scandal, had to admit that the party that has ruled Alberta for 43 years was in search of its self.

"Emerson had a saying: No one sets out in life to lose their way, but people do," Mr. Prentice told me in Calgary a few weeks ago. "I guess this applies to political institutions as well. It's been a lack of leadership that has caused this problem, not longevity."

Mr. Prentice quickly set about distancing the party from several of the more divisive and damaging aspects of Ms. Redford's tenure. He sold off the government air fleet she had abused. He reversed a petty-minded decision to get rid of the province's popular licence plates because they had the words "Wild Rose" on them. He said the province was under new management and urged the public to give him time to prove it.

It appears Albertans are amenable to the idea.

This week, the Tories won four by-elections, including one that gave Mr. Prentice a seat in the legislature. At least two of the four were seen as near certainties for the PCs. But the Official Opposition Wildrose Party believed it had a real shot at the other two. It got close in one but finished a distant third in the other. Now it's the leadership of Danielle Smith under scrutiny.

The poor Wildrose showing must be particularly gutting for supporters. Given what the PCs had put the province through recently, there wasn't a better time for the public to send a message of discontent, or for Wildrose to capitalize. If not now, when?

Ms. Smith must be asking herself that question today. Even though her party's constitution doesn't require it, she announced after the result that she's prepared to put her leadership to the test. And she was bold enough to proclaim that a vote of 77 per cent in favour of her staying on the job – the same number Ms. Redford got when her leadership was under siege – would not be good enough. She'd need something more convincing.

It's hard to imagine Ms. Smith not getting the backing she needs. The party doesn't have an obvious successor. Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson likely imagines himself leadership material but he isn't ready yet and doesn't have nearly the charisma of Ms. Smith. The Wildrose leader is, in many respects, an ideal spokesperson – she's smart, telegenic and articulate. A born politician.

Yet, she has not been able to persuade the public that Wildrose is ready to govern, even after softening the party's policy platform to make it more palatable (less right-wing) to a greater number of people. Support for Wildrose remains centred mostly in rural areas, while the population continues to build around the two main metropolitan centres of Edmonton and Calgary, both run by progressive-minded mayors. This is a problem.

The PCs talk the fiscal conservative game (although there is lots of evidence to the contrary) but also spend loads of money on education and health care. This has helped make the party popular with Albertans who would otherwise be uncomfortable with the kind of small-c conservative manifesto Wildrose fronts.

Wildrose's best shot at winning power was in the 2012 election, when the public seemed completely fed up with the Conservatives under Ms. Redford. But that hope evaporated in the waning days of the campaign. Now, the PCs are being led by someone who appears to have leadership skills his predecessor could only dream of.

The new Premier has also surrounded himself with the kind of smart, savvy people Ms. Redford never had advising her. It's doubtful Mr. Prentice will make the same kind of bone-headed, politically tone-deaf mistakes Ms. Redford did. So far, he has demonstrated a fairly steady hand at the tiller.

This is a huge issue for Ms. Smith. Her party's constant attacks on the Conservatives haven't worked. Now, it would seem, she is going to have to convincingly lay out the case for why Wildrose is a better alternative to govern the province. That is, if she remains leader.