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Gary Mar joins race to lead Alberta PCs - but can he shake front-runner syndrome?

Gary Mar, Alberta's former finance minister, is joining the race to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservatives.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

In Alberta politics, we've seen this script before - twice, as of late.

Former long-time cabinet minister Gary Mar joined the Progressive Conservative leadership race Wednesday, confirming months of rumours.

Given Mr. Mar's experience, profile in Calgary and the campaign team already in place, some PC Party veterans say in interviews they perceive him as an early front-runner in a crowded field. Other candidates' camps emphatically deny that, however, noting that no polling has been released.

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Mr. Mar won't say if he considers himself a front-runner, and may not want to be: Being a front-runner is something of a curse in this province, if Calgary's mayoral contest and the previous race to lead the Progressive Conservatives are any indication.

Large parts of the campaign teams from Calgary's fall mayoral election are now running PC candidates: Some of Barb Higgins's team with Mr. Mar; Ric McIver's team with Ted Morton; and winner Naheed Nenshi's manager, Stephen Carter, running the campaign of former justice minister Alison Redford.

"Here we go again," one staffer said.

In the mayoral race, Mr. McIver, a city councillor, was the early front-runner, though former CTV anchor Ms. Higgins entered to much fanfare. But Mr. Nenshi, a professor, was the only candidate with momentum - and shot from third to first in the final week of the campaign.

This is precisely the fear of veteran, backroom Tories in the current PC leadership race, and are showing some hesitation in backing people early.

In the last Conservative leadership race in 2006, Jim Dinning was a perceived slam-dunk candidate but lost to Ed Stelmach, another third-to-first candidate.

"We went through this five years ago [with Mr. Dinning] We had the best candidate, we had the best campaign, we had the most money, [and lost]" one Tory said, adding a "sense of impending doom" is keeping him away, for now, from jumping into the fray and supporting his preferred candidate: Mr. Mar.

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Mr. Mar, 48, comes with a long résumé. He served 14 years as an Alberta MLA before taking up the job as the province's advocate in Washington three years ago. While in government, he held several high-profile cabinet portfolios, including health, education and environment.

Altogether, it makes him easily the race's most experienced government candidate.

"I think Alberta is ready for a government that gets it, and I am ready to be the person that leads the Progressive Conservative Party, and form the government that gets it," Mr. Mar told The Globe and Mail. Asked if that should be interpreted as a rebuke of the Stelmach government, he said: "I'm here to talk about the future, and not the past."

He said Alberta needs to focus on its energy, agriculture and forestry industries and find ways to bring the products to the Pacific Ocean. He, like Mr. Stelmach, supports a proposed rail expansion and two pipeline projects, which are controversial but would open Alberta to Asian markets.

"I see all the great challenges and opportunities that are outside of this province, and I want to participate in helping create the circumstances that help Alberta become a global player," Mr. Mar said.

His campaign will be, in many ways, similar to Ms. Redford's. They are both urbanites from Calgary - the province's voting blocks are often split between rural and urban, as well as between Calgary and Edmonton - and both are campaigning on expanding Alberta's energy industry.

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In an apparent move to beat Mr. Mar to the punch on another issue, Ms. Redford came out Tuesday against a controversial land-use law in the province, first tabled by Mr. Morton. She was the first candidate to do so, raising eyebrows in the process because she sat in cabinet for two years without complaining about the law.

Aside from trying to buck a trend of recent front-runners who couldn't seal a victory, Mr. Mar faces other challenges. One is his high profile in a government that is increasingly unpopular. Another is a previous scandal when, as minister of health, his office gave untendered contracts to a former staffer, Kelley Charlebois, who is now working on Mr. Mar's campaign.

"If people want to dig up stuff from many, many years ago, I guess they're entitled to do so. But the fact is we learn from our successes and our mistakes. I've acknowledged that mistake and I've taken responsibility for it," Mr. Mar said.

The race now has five members. Joining Mr. Mar are Ms. Redford, the former justice minister; former deputy premier Doug Horner, a farmer and northerner, in the same mould as Mr. Stelmach; Ted Morton, who stepped down as finance minister earlier this year to avoid tabling a deficit budget, and is running again after finishing third in 2006; and Doug Griffiths, the youngest candidate, hoping to capture a youth movement.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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