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PC leadership tipsheet: Mar to win, Morton to place, surprises possible

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Alberta Tory leadership candidate Gary Mar

With the federal election out of the way, the Alberta political spotlight should soon shift to the contest to lead the provincial Progressive Conservative Party -- and, inevitably, the general election that will follow the choice this fall.

It's a great political story by any yardstick. Six candidates are now in the race, every one capable of doing the job at least as well as Premier Ed Stelmach, the man they're vying to replace. At least three more are reputed to be seriously considering running.

What's more, there are significant policy differences among these candidates that mean there would be real differences in how each would run the province. This matters, because whoever wins this race will become the premier of Alberta, quite possibly for a long time.

If this were a horserace, and the candidates were horses, your racetrack tipsheet might look like this:

Doug Griffiths: At 38, the Battle River-Wainwright MLA is the youngest in the race. As a member of the short-lived "Fiscal Four" he's on clearly on the party's fiscally conservative side. He's smart and speaks well, but, really, he's mainly in the race to make a name for himself.

Doug Horner: Former deputy premier, long-time cabinet heavy hitter and part of Stelmach's inner-circle, the 50-year-old MLA for Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert has experience and a steady hand on his side, but a reputation as "Ed Stelmach Lite" working against him. He's more conservative than the party's right-wing opponents give him credit for being, but he's clearly part of the party's moderate centre.

Gary Mar: Relatively youthful at 48, smart, and, as holder of several important portfolios under premier Ralph Klein, experienced. So it's no surprise Mar is the favourite of the Conservative party establishment. As Alberta's "envoy" to Washington, the Calgary lawyer remained in the public eye, but far enough from government to be untainted by Stelmach's blunders. He's on the party's more moderate side. He's the front-runner today, yet somehow his campaign has failed to connect with Albertans.

Ted Morton: No question that the American-born Morton, a University of Calgary PhD political scientist known for his hard-line fiscal views, is the darling of the party's right wing. As such, he's the most likely candidate to woo back defectors to the Wildrose Alliance, but also the most likely to frighten moderate voters. After a strong finish in the 2006 leadership race, the Foothills-Rocky View MLA is said to have hung onto his supporters' contact information, so he has a leg-up in the first-ballot race. At 62, he looks a little long in the tooth.

Rick Orman: This well-heeled Calgary oilman, youthful-voiced radio political commentator and former cabinet minister is nearly 63, so he saves Morton the embarrassment of being the oldest candidate in the race. He's just as far to the right as Morton, clearly trying to encroach on Wildrose Alliance territory. But as a relic of the era of Premier Don Getty, he's so far from politics he is only the longest of long-shots.

Alison Redford: Only 46, well known as an international legal authority, a polished performer and as tough as nails, the only woman in the race is the brainiest of this lot by far. The question is, will voters who loved a Grade 9 dropout like Klein take to someone who is so obviously smart, who also has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly? The first-term MLA for Calgary-Elbow and former Justice Minister leans to the Red Tory side of the party equation but is hard to categorize.

At least three others are frequently named as possible candidates: Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky. All are in the party's squishy middle. All must declare their candidacy soon or forget about it.

So here's the race as I see it today:

Win: Mar

Place: Morton

Show: Horner

Wild Card: Redford

But as any punter knows, in a horserace, anything can happen!

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga's column in yesterday's edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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