Kevin Taft is proof there’s some truth to the old saw about nice guys finishing last.

Back in 2008, when the former University of Alberta professor was leader of the Alberta Liberals and opinion polls said dissatisfaction with Premier Ed Stelmach had voters thinking seriously about their options, it almost looked as if the brass ring was within Taft’s grasp.

It was not to be. Maybe it was those union TV ads attacking the premier — for which the Liberals got the blame, even though they had nothing to do with them. Maybe it was Taft’s stumble about oilsands development rules, which made it sound as if he wanted to slow job creation. Maybe it was just the snow that fell the night before the polls opened.

Whatever it was, when the election came on March 3, farmer Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives snatched a huge majority from the jaws of something less, and nice-guy Taft did “the right thing” and stepped aside as Opposition leader while remaining an MLA.

But that was then and this is now. Premier Stelmach’s popularity didn’t last. On the contrary, it crumbled. The doubts among voters that opinion polls were tracking before the election kept growing, and Conservative popularity declined accordingly. Had the capable and intellectually nimble Taft remained at the helm of the Liberals, a strong case can be made many of these votes would have switched to his party.

Meanwhile, the Liberals’ choice of a replacement was less than stellar. David Swann, an environmentalist and Calgary physician, is a fine man — kind, decent and sympathetic. He is so nice a person that it is almost painful to state this truth, but he clearly lacks the instincts required to succeed as Opposition leader. Under his lacklustre leadership, one prominent Liberal MLA has quit to sit as an independent, reducing the party caucus in the Legislature to eight, while another has announced he’s departing soon to run for mayor of Calgary. Support that could have gone to the Liberals went elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be the far-right Wildrose Alliance under the leadership of the engaging former journalist Danielle Smith. Of course, this could be either good news or bad news for the Liberals. Some of those potential Wildrose votes most certainly belong to electors who would have supported the Liberals if Taft had stuck around. On the other hand, many ridings have strong Liberal voting traditions, and if the vote on the right splits evenly enough it could hand many constituencies to the Liberals.

But for that to happen, the Liberals need a strong leader, and Swann is simply not that person.

Now, the conventional wisdom among almost everyone who follows Alberta politics is that the Liberals require a new face. But there’s hardly enough time for the Liberals to come up with someone completely new before Premier Stelmach calls an election — even if he waits, as promised, until March 2012.

Realistically, there is only one place for the Liberals to go for an effective leader, and that is back to the future: Kevin Taft.

Swann needs to follow the great Canadian political tradition of taking a walk in the snow — or the spring dandelions, as the case may be — to ponder stepping aside for the good of his party and our province.

He deserves an important and influential role in government. But that is something he can only have if the Liberals have a leader who can get enough of them elected to form a government — even if that means co-operating with the NDP. Right now, the only Liberal who fills that bill is Kevin Taft.

Nice guys don’t have to finish last every time. Sometimes history gives them a second chance. If history smiles on Taft, he has the opportunity to be something more than the best premier Alberta never had.

If it doesn’t, maybe we should start getting used to the troubling sound of “Premier Danielle Smith!”