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Well-financed Rick Orman candidacy a grave setback to Ted Morton's hopes

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Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Rick Orman

Question: Who wins when Ted Morton and Rick Orman battle it out for votes of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party's right wing?

Answer: Gary Mar.

The entry of Orman as a candidate to replace Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach significantly changes the dynamic of the Tory leadership race, which is now starting to pick up steam.

However, it doesn't change it in a way that particularly benefits either Orman, a well-heeled Calgary oilman and former Cabinet minister from the time when Don Getty was premier (1985-1992), or Morton, the market fundamentalist PhD political scientist who until now has been the darling of the party's right wing.

Indeed, the only beneficiary on the right is likely to be the Wildrose Alliance Party, which in turn has problems of its own -- including sinking public support since Stelmach announced his retirement plans and the loss of some of its best strategists, wooed back to Ottawa by ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's federal Conservative majority.

So the only likely real gainers of the vote split between these two strong right-wing candidates will be moderate candidates like Mar, Alison Redford and Doug Horner.

Morton, the former finance minister, was the first candidate in the race and he certainly looked pleased with himself back on the day he precipitated Stelmach's resignation announcement after a fight between the two over how tough the 2011 budget ought to be.

As a tough-guy fiscal hard-liner, the American-born Morton was the darling of the right and was immediately dubbed the front-runner by the media. He was seen, correctly, as the candidate then in the race most likely to successfully woo back Tory defectors to the Wildrose Alliance. He was known to have a strong organization in place that had managed to hang onto his supporters' contact information from the 2006 contest with Stelmach and Jim Dinning.

So at the start of the campaign, Morton looked like a candidate who could win -- although, since all the other candidates seemed more moderate, most likely only if he eked out a victory on the first ballot.

One imagines that Morton is smiling a little less now with the entry of Orman into the campaign.

Orman's pitch is directly aimed at exactly the same slice of the Conservative Party's likely supporters as Morton's -- including those who had given up on Stelmach and defected to the Wildrose Alliance. Indeed, he sounds an awful lot like a Wildrose supporter who has read the writing on the wall and concluded that the only way to win anything worth winning in this province is still as a Conservative.

What Orman lacks in supporters from 2006, he more than makes up for in cash -- at least, this is so if there is any truth to the persistent rumour his campaign war chest contains $1.5 million!

Moreover, from Morton's perspective, there's not much in Orman's resume to go after.

Even though Morton has tried to paint himself as just a little bit closer to the Tories' squishy middle of late, the former finance minister who built his reputation as a fiscal hardliner can hardly attack Orman for being a fiscal hardliner.

He could go after Orman for being too old -- the new candidate is 62, soon to be 63, after all. But then, Morton is, uh, 62 as well.

He could attack Orman for being an ideological market fundamentalist but for the fact he has been Alberta's most prominent ideological market fundamentalist for years.

What's left, shots at Orman for being rich and zipping around in corporate bizjets while plucking grapes from a silver tray? Well, it's true -- there is photographic evidence! But how is this going to have any impact coming from a well-paid career civil servant like Morton -- who was first a professor at a public university and later an MLA and minister, notwithstanding his far-right credentials?

Please! They're even both snappy dressers, partial to blue blazers and cufflinks.

Fact is, there is very little to distinguish these two and they're likely to split their vote. One might even try to take his vote to the other on a second ballot, but by then it will be too late. The moderate Conservative vote will have chosen one of Horner, Mar or Redford and the game will be up.

The arrival of Orman in the race is a significant blow to Morton's prospects.

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

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