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Alberta Premier Jim Prentice reaches a crucial moment in a high-stakes game

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As Kenny Rogers famously sang, "You gotta to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run…"

Sometime today, we've been assured, we'll be told where in Calgary Premier Jim Prentice will run for a seat in the Alberta Legislature. It's not quite as clear we'll be told when.

If no date is set, that's a hold, and it's a sign of a bad hand getting worse.

Back in August, before he won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, Prentice promised the Edmonton Journal editorial board that if he were chosen as leader he would call a by-election immediately. On Sept. 6, party members duly picked Prentice as the best man to put the bad memories of Alison Redford's misrule as far behind them as possible.

Since being sworn in on Sept. 15, he's spent two exciting weeks reversing many of Redford's policies -- leaving the province shaken, if not stirred.

He also appointed a couple of unelected cabinet ministers as a symbol of the claim -- a bit of a reach, actually -- that Alberta is "under new management."

Certainly the PC caucus is under new management. No one can dispute that. But with the exceptions of Prentice himself, Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Education Minister Gordon Dirks, the management of the province looks pretty much like the familiar old Tories Albertans have seemingly grown tired of having around.

Still, Prentice's changes of the past couple of weeks have been pretty bold, so there may be enough good will resulting among Albertans for voters in whatever riding he picks to give him a chance.

Still, it’s a pretty high stakes game he's playing -- it would be a devastating blow both to the premier and his party if he failed to get a seat in the Legislature, and it would hardly be a good sign if Mandel or Dirks suffered the same fate.

From Prentice's perspective, it might be even worse if he faltered while, say, Mandel, the former mayor of Edmonton with a certain following in the Capital Region, managed to win.

The outcome of the three by-elections -- Mandel’s in solidly Tory Edmonton-Whitemud, Dirks' in Redford's disillusioned Calgary-Elbow riding, and Prentice's mysteriously still to be announced but likely in Calgary-Nose Hill-Mackay where MLA Neil Brown has kindly offered to give up his seat, may well reveal the fate of the entire 43-year-old PC Dynasty.

So it's possible that Tory insiders -- poring over the auguries over the weekend -- were getting cold feet about letting Prentice stick to his vow to run right away and damn the torpedoes.

That may explain why, just yesterday, Prentice's hometown Herald began to cast some doubt on whether the premier would actually call a by-election right away or just indicate which riding he intends to run in one of these days.

If he fails to announce both a date and a riding, Prentice's credibility will suffer mightily -- but not as mightily as it would if he went on to lose a by-election.

The opposition parties, fearful Prentice may be about to snatch another PC victory from what days ago seemed to be certain defeat, are in no mood to give the new and unelected premier the traditional easy ride.

On the other hand, it's not unheard of for a premier to lead from outside the Legislature for a spell.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Whether Prentice opts to hold 'em or run today will tell us a lot about how confident the PC back room is that he can deliver what he promised during the leadership campaign.

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

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