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The last Liberal standing will try to revive battered Alberta Liberals' fortunes

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Alberta Liberal leadership candidate Hugh MacDonald

Hugh MacDonald may be the last Liberal left standing, but, by God, he is a Liberal!

MacDonald, 55, the famously hardworking MLA for the Edmonton-Goldbar riding, announced yesterday he is joining the not-very-crowded race for the leadership of the faltering Alberta Liberal Party.

Because of the party's tattered state after two and a half years under the indecisive hand of Leader David Swann, and the fact it is likely on the verge of the historic loss of its status as the party of Official Opposition to the Wildrose Alliance, its leadership does not seem like much of a prize.

One senses, consequently, that the ever-loyal, ever-Liberal MacDonald is stepping up to the proverbial plate out of a sense of duty to his party in tough times. The four-term MLA is unlikely to be driven by unrealistic ambition.

But this may give him a certain strength not possessed by the other two candidates -- Edmonton-Centre MLA Laurie Blakeman, another veteran Liberal MLA but one who has been willing to consider dancing with other parties, and Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman, the mercurial former Tory perpetually at the centre of Alberta's never-ending health care crisis.

You see, at this point in its history, no leader is likely to revive the Alberta Liberals' battered fortunes. That goes even for one like MacDonald, who is not afraid of rolling up his sleeves and working hard, digging out embarrassing facts about the government, firing tough questions at cabinet and speaking up forcefully enough to be heard.

Alas, the party's brand is just too damaged with most Alberta voters, the historic tide is moving against it in Alberta as on the national stage, and too many of the Albertans who wish to cast a protest vote against the government see the far-right Wildrose Alliance as the place to do that.

That said, if anyone among the Alberta Liberal candidates can ensure the party's survival after the leadership contest ends on Sept. 10, it seems to this observer that MacDonald would be the person who could do it.

This is because a peculiarity of the Liberal vote in Alberta is that while it is not very big, it is quite determined. This means that the 12 to 15 per cent of Albertans who are going to vote Liberal no matter what aren't particularly interested in casting ballots for the New Democratic Party on the left or the Conservatives or the Wildrose Alliance on the right. Or, come to that, for leaders who would consider alliances with any of them.

As for the fledgling Alberta Party -- wherever it sits in the political spectrum, if anywhere -- it is said here that Alberta's determined Liberal voters aren't very interested in voting for it either, no matter how assiduously its once-Liberal founders court their votes.

This suggests that the Alberta Liberals would have a better chance of survival under a true-blue (or, rather, true-red) Liberal like MacDonald than led by Blakeman, who has in the past talked of "collaboration" with the Alberta Party, or by Sherman, who is a one-issue candidate and a former Conservative who would likely also consider coalitions of convenience to boot.

MacDonald dismisses talk of collaboration with the Alberta Party or anyone else as "political footsie." This is music to the ears of Alberta's hard-core Liberal voters. "I certainly was not part of the party that wanted to dismantle the party and join another one," he told the Edmonton Journal yesterday. "I was a Liberal and I'm a loyal steadfast liberal."

The fact that Alberta's Liberal vote is nowadays concentrated in a few ridings in the Edmonton area also works for a leader like MacDonald, allowing him at least the faint hope of emerging from the next general election with a small but functional caucus.

Led by either of the others contenders, Alberta Liberals could very well come out of the next election with no seats at all as disgusted deep-red Liberal supporters simply stay home.

The irony is that while MacDonald may be the only politician who can save his party, if he does he will likely end up carrying the can for its diminished fortunes.

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

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