Edmonton is the government centre, but the heart of Alberta's conservative politics is Calgary, the booming business hub that has produced leaders such as Stephen Harper, Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein, defining much of Alberta politics for decades.
But as the province's political landscape changes, so too does Calgary's. A poll released on Monday showed a city in flux, with its considerable Liberal contingent collapsing and sliding to the Progressive Conservatives, pushing them into a neck-and-neck race with the right-wing Wildrose Party. Polls had previously shown Wildrose running away with Calgary.
The split is driven by several factors, including centrists flocking to the PCs to prevent vote-splitting and block Wildrose, and the city's fast-changing demographics. It pits traditional conservatives in the Wildrose camp against the PC mix of converted centrists, progressives and recent migrants to the province, which Ms. Redford says isn't the same as it was 20 years ago.
As Alberta's election campaign narrows to a two-horse race – the Liberal Leader acknowledged on Monday it would be a "miracle" if his party were to win – all eyes are on the quickly changing, unpredictable city locked in a battle of conservative ideology. Calgary is also home to 25 of the province's 87 seats, with another half-dozen or so in the bedroom communities.
Both Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and PC Leader Alison Redford will campaign there on Tuesday, and no city will see more of the leaders before Monday's vote with a majority at stake. "Whoever wins Calgary is going to win the election," Mayor Naheed Nenshi said last week.
Monday's poll showed that the Liberal vote has dropped to just 5 per cent while the PCs have surged to 45 per cent, just ahead of Wildrose at 41 per cent.
"Clearly, people are choosing sides in Calgary – it's either Wildrose or PC," said pollster Bruce Cameron, president of Return on Insight, which produced Monday's poll with a relatively small sample of 800 people.
Edmonton is just as closely fought – Mr. Cameron's poll showed Wildrose in the lead there – because Liberal and NDP support has remained strong in the city, the province's centrist enclave. However, Calgary is drawing political attention as it allows the PCs and Wildrose to focus on battling one another if, indeed, Liberal support has dried up.
In 2008, Calgary elected five Liberals – all clustered in central ridings – with the PCs sweeping the rest of the city.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, who is from Edmonton, urged centrist Calgary voters to not abandon his party, saying Liberal seats in a minority government would be instrumental in balancing out the two conservative parties.
"I'm asking for folks to vote Alberta Liberal so neither the PCs nor the Wildrose gets a majority government," he said, dismissing the notion that Ms. Redford – a Red Tory on her party's progressive flank – is as liberal a PC leader as progressives could hope for. "These are two very right-wing leaders, don't be misled."
PC campaign staff believe they're seeing a shift in Calgary, but Wildrose Senate candidate and party stalwart Vitor Marciano said the poll's results are off – both in Edmonton, where it showed them leading, and in Calgary, where they were four points behind. Wildrose believes it will do very well in a handful of Edmonton ridings, and that it is well ahead in Calgary.
Ms. Smith said the poll won't be the election night result, and that Wildrose is the "only conservative party" in the race.
"I know that that is part of the PC strategy," to attract the Liberal and NDP vote, Ms. Smith said. "I guess we'll see on election day whether or not that's successful. It seems to me that Dr. Sherman and [NDP Leader Brian]Mason are both running quite good campaigns, and people who have for years and years and years voted against the PCs, it seems odd that they would all of a sudden jump ship."
Mr. Cameron, the pollster, said the rural numbers for Wildrose are in "sweep territory," meaning little more than a respectable showing in the two major cities would hand Ms. Smith a majority. The key to a PC comeback, he said, will be whether Calgary's Liberal collapse plays out and whether something similar happens in Edmonton. "It's not a slam-dunk that this is going to be a runaway [Wildrose]majority," he said. "It still could emerge that way in the last week, but the PCs still have an opportunity here to make a comeback."