Even with Alberta Premier Alison Redford in a mood to tarry just a little and not call an election until after her government has passed its first budget, only one centrist political party is likely to be in a position to challenge her in all 87 ridings come election day -- the New Democrats.
With 73 candidates already nominated, the Alberta NDP under Brian Mason will have no trouble going into the election with a full slate capable of confronting Redford's Progressive Conservative government from the left, while the Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith takes them on with a full slate from the right.
Not only that, but the New Democrats will be the only Alberta party, including the government, with a leader who has actually led his or her party through an election.
As a result, even mainstream media are starting to pick up the refrain -- first heard in this small corner of the blogosphere -- that the NDP might well emerge after the election as Alberta's Opposition, thanks to splits in voter support that favour the party in the Edmonton region while the Wildrose Party is unlikely to similarly benefit in its Calgary heartland, where the Tories are stronger.
Under the leadership of former Conservative Raj Sherman, the discombobulated Alberta Liberals are apparently on the verge of abandoning their traditional strategy of flashing left while turning right, and have only nominated 23 candidates. It is said here they are unlikely to have a full slate ready by whatever date Redford calls the election. If they somehow manage, there is no way many of their candidates will be credible or election-ready.
As for the Alberta Party -- which a year ago was being touted as the next big thing in Alberta politics -- they have never risen above 5 per cent in popular support, and with only 11 candidates nominated, they are right now contesting fewer than 13 per cent of the seats in the Legislature!
So, even if the election is not going to be quite as early as some observers expected, it will still be upon us very soon thanks to the government's new legislation that says it must take place between March 1 and May 31. And with their present nomination numbers, that's too soon, no matter what, for the Liberals or the Alberta Party.
That's the good news for the NDP. The bad news is that the Conservative position is so commanding that another massive Tory landslide seems an almost virtual certainty barring a disaster of, as they say, Biblical proportions.
The nine public polls published in 2011, which show Conservative support ranging from 38 to 54 per cent province-wide, give a more ambiguous reading than the apparent mood of the province, where Redford seems very popular and support for her government buoyant.
Here's betting that the latest private Conservative Party polls, which are surely now being conducted pretty much round the clock, show support for the government and Redford personally increasing sharply, especially since she made it clear she would enforce generational change in the party and pushed many of the old guard toward the exits.
If support for the Conservatives climbs toward the 60-per-cent range -- which is well within the realm of current possibility -- the news will not be good for any Opposition party, even the best organized one with the best candidates.
This is why no one should be particularly surprised that Premier Redford announced late last week she would allow Finance Minister Ron Liepert to see his career swan-song budget passed in the Legislature before she pulls the electoral plug.
Why not? It's not as if she needs to race into an election before Albertans get to know her -- as might have been the case had Gary Mar won the Tory leadership. On the contrary, the more voters see of Redford, they more they seem to like her.
So there's little risk she'll significantly weaken her position by delaying -- but she will gain the opportunity of forcing the Opposition parties to give up their responses to her positions.
Since the Conservatives have been reading the same clippings as the rest of us for the past two years, they obviously still view the Wildrose Party and Smith as the principal threat they face. So their goal in this exercise is likely going to be to appear tough enough in the budget to appease their own right wing while making the Wildrose Party look like far-right loonies who would go after popular programs like health and education.
So expect Liepert's budget to squeeze, but not to squeeze until the pips squeak!
Beyond that, don't expect Premier Redford to have weakened her position by having a full spring session that begins on Feb. 7, followed by a revealing budget debate and a nice break for Easter, which this year is on April 8, and then an election sometime in mid-April.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.