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Delayed by fog, dogged by health system allegations, Gary Mar's Alberta Tory leadership campaign has bumpy start

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Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Gary Mar

Gary Mar's official announcement yesterday afternoon in Edmonton that he's a candidate for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party drew enough heavyweight Tory beef on the hoof, some of it cabinet grade, to make it pretty easy to draw the conclusion he's the choice of the natural governing party's establishment.

Likewise, the enthusiastic well-wishers, impeccably dressed party insiders, barking TV reporters, battery-laden camera operators and wired-for-sound political flunkies that packed the trendy Metterra Hotel on Whyte Avenue for the 48-year-old Calgary lawyer's platitude-laden speech and presidential-style news conference sure looked like the retinue that bobs along in the wake of the politically anointed.

And so it should have been. The event, after all, was stage-managed by some of the most successful spin-doctors in the business, including many of the guys and gals who ran Jim Dinning's leadership bid in 2006.

However, readers with long memories will recall that Dinning's campaign also once seemed like the opening moments of a coronation ceremony, before that old spoiler Ed Stelmach came up the middle to prove the universe doesn't always unfold as it should. Today, Stelmach is the outgoing premier of Alberta and Dinning is just some guy from Calgary.

A lot of the people in the crowd yesterday were the kind of folks who are used to running things in Alberta and, whatever Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith or supporters of the other Conservative candidates may think, they don't expect anything about that to change anytime soon.

But there were signs that all may not yet be right with the world of the Alberta Conservative establishment, if that is indeed what Mar represents.

Just for starters, Mar's news conference didn't get under way until four hours after it was supposed to. He stayed in Calgary for a talk radio show yesterday morning and then his plane couldn't land at Edmonton or even Red Deer because of iffy weather. The whole thing had to be moved back from lunchtime to 4 p.m. This undid some of the beneficial effects of his carefully timed resignation Monday as Alberta's "Minister-Counsellor" and chief salesman in Washington, D.C.

Wouldn't you have stayed overnight in Edmonton and handled the Calgary talk jock over the telephone if you were going to announce you were running for premier there the next day? It was radio, for crying out loud! No one can see if you're not actually there!

This less than stellar beginning suggests that as polished as Mar's campaign team may be, they can't control the weather and they're not really attuned to the idea that once they occupy the premier's office, they're going to have to fight a real election against an opposition leader who knows how to campaign. Well, in their defence, a real election race hasn't happened in Alberta for 40 years!

What's more, Conservative candidates Ted Morton, Doug Horner, Alison Redford and Doug Griffiths aren't just going to roll over and play dead, even if a couple of former health ministers like Energy Minister Ron Liepert and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Iris Evans did show up to wish Mar well.

Then there was the matter of that other kind of doc, the kind whose specialty isn't spinning, which hung over the whole affair like a pall of smoke from a house fire.

Mar's supporters may have seemed perky and cheerful, even given the late hour, but the journalists present mostly wanted to ask questions about the physicians who keep coming forward claiming they were bullied by Alberta health officials for speaking up for their patients -- some of them during Mar's watch as health minister.

The CBC rolled out a story about another one yesterday -- the third such case reported by the network since Raj Sherman, the former Conservative Parliamentary Assistant for Health who is now a candidate for the leadership of the Alberta Liberals, first stood up and told the Legislature stories about intimidation, payoffs and dirty deeds in the health-care system.

The Edmonton Journal's story about the news conference led with the health angle, not the leadership announcement. The Journal's lead: "Former health minister Gary Mar says he has no knowledge of cancer patients dying on waiting lists or about millions of dollars in hush money allegedly paid to doctors who spoke out about those deaths."

And while Mar remained assiduously inside his message box, his suave response of "I have no recollection of that" to media recitations of Sherman's allegations looked positively Nixonian when it appeared in print on the Journal's website.

The best part of Mar's speech was his tribute to the hard work and sacrifice of his late father. Maybe if he hadn't gone on so long after that the collective media mind wouldn't have wandered to into the dark back passages if the lingering health care story. In the event, however, his 15-minute speech had about 13 minutes too many.

Mar may very well win, both the Tory leadership and the next general election. But this will be no romp to victory. Maybe there's a reason the crosswalk sign in that ubiquitous picture of Mar in front of the U.S. Capitol is frozen at 13.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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