Minutes after Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford called an election at the legislature grounds in Edmonton, she and her top rival headed to where the action is – Calgary, the province's economic capital and the focus of what will be a horse race between its two conservative parties.
Ms. Redford's PCs face, for the first time, a well-funded, well-organized opponent on the right: the libertarian Wildrose party, led by Danielle Smith, who is aiming to win a majority. A Global News poll released Monday as the campaign began showed the parties tied at 38-per-cent support each, the first time since the early 1990s that the Tories have faced a serious challenge.
As such, the narrative that has emerged is of a two-party horse race – it's Ms. Redford, a 47-year-old lawyer who casts herself as the face of the new, more cosmopolitan Alberta, one hoping to play a larger role in Confederation and worldwide, against Ms. Smith, a 40-year-old former school trustee and columnist who is betting conservative Alberta is still the base of its politics.
"We're not looking to just win a couple of seats. We want to form government," Ms. Smith said at a Calgary campaign stop Monday. "We are a totally different party, and I think one that's in line with the common-sense, conservative values that most Albertans share."
Wildrose, which is backed by many members of the federal Conservative party, is strongest in rural areas and in Calgary, and so both leaders hit the ground there in a race that's uncommon in Canadian politics – pitting one female-led conservative party against another. Their strategies, however, are totally different.
Ms. Smith is in attack mode, holding an event Monday in Ms. Redford's riding and highlighting PC failures, including controversies about MLA pay, improper donations from public institutions and a series of land-use laws that riled up rural voters.
Ms. Redford, in turn, repeatedly avoided going negative in a series of events Monday, speaking about her vision and platform rather than her party's past or her opponent.
"The distinction [between the parties]is that I believe in a very positive view of the future of this province. I believe in the issues that face families needing to be talked about – education, health care," Ms. Redford said while door-knocking in her affluent Calgary riding. "I think there's lots of differences, and I think it will be up to Albertans to decide what they want to do."
Both Ms. Redford and Ms. Smith are in their first campaign as party leader. The vote will be held April 23, but Wildrose has been in campaign mode for months. It has relentlessly attacked Ms. Redford in an effort to cast her as a flip-flopping, free-spending closet liberal who will turn Alberta into a big-government nanny state.
"We are going to give Albertans a chance to vote for change, not just leader change, not merely promised change, but actual change," Ms. Smith said Monday, calling it "the most important election in our province's history."
Ms. Redford and her party, in turn, have blamed Wildrose for purposely killing an education bill (though both parties tabled last-minute amendments that delayed and derailed it); warned voters that Wildrose would slash funding to municipalities to balance the budget; trotted out decade-old columns by Ms. Smith advocating for legalized prostitution; and mocked the gaffe with Wildrose's campaign bus design.
But while her party has started going after Wildrose, Ms. Redford hasn't taken the gloves off. She has instead clung to a positive message and turned to a party base that has delivered majorities since 1971, making whistle-stop appearances Monday at two small-town Tim Hortons locations – ordering a small coffee, one milk – and an oil field welding shop. She met small, though loyal, crowds.
"Always, I'm PC," supporter Bertha Thorlakson, 75, said at one Tim Hortons, saying she's not put off by the recent controversies. "She is a pleasant lady and she likes talking with the people."
Holding on to that rural base will be critical for Ms. Redford, and even some of her own candidates fear it will be an uphill battle. Ms. Smith, meanwhile, needs to convince voters that time is up for the PCs and that Wildrose's brand of libertarian thinking is the best alternative.
"I'm optimistic that now that people are looking at their options, that we're in an election period that we are going to see incredible gains all over the province," Ms. Smith said.