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Former cabinet minister Jim Prentice to seek Alberta PC leadership

Former Industry Minister Jim Prentice, now CIBC's vice-chair, is photographed at The Globe and Mail on March 1, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Jim Prentice is taking his national profile and ties to both red Tories and fiscal hawks back to Alberta and will enter the province's Progressive Conservative leadership race, setting the stage for a fierce 2016 provincial election campaign with the right-of-centre Wildrose party.

A long-time spokesman for Mr. Prentice, who asked not to be named, said on Monday the federal cabinet minister turned banking executive will return to politics and officially enter the Alberta governing party's leadership race in May. It will be a summer of campaigning – the leadership vote is scheduled for September. If Mr. Prentice, 57, wins, he will be the Alberta premier until the 2016 election.

"He's been making calls to cabinet and caucus, I can confirm that, and he's received a lot of encouragement," the spokesman said. "He's putting together a finance and campaign team. In the coming days – it will likely be a week or more – he will be making a formal announcement, at which point in time, he'll outline his vision for the province."

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Should Mr. Prentice win the PC leadership, he is out of any immediate run for the helm of the federal Conservative Party.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown no sign of wanting to leave, but Mr. Prentice was considered to be one of the more "progressive" Conservatives in a future race for the national party. Mr. Prentice had retained hopes of returning to federal politics, but came to the conclusion Mr. Harper was not leaving any time soon.

"He had kept his profile up, hoping to get a crack at the big job in Ottawa," a source close to Mr. Prentice said. "But he figured out one day it wasn't going to work."

Mr. Prentice gains front-runner status in the provincial leadership race, and a few Tory MLAs were already tweeting their support for him late on Monday. But he is not a panacea for the ills of the party, which has ruled Alberta for 43 years.

Although he was a key part of the Harper government, some of the party's most conservative elements are worried he is too much like former premier Alison Redford – who was pushed into resigning in March – and is a "Joe Clark" Tory with federal connections who knows little about the provincial scene. If he wins, he will have to spend many months on fundraising. The PC party is attempting to rebuild its finances after an expensive 2012 campaign and is struggling to keep pace with the Official Opposition Wildrose, now well ahead in polls. And while Mr. Prentice is well known in business and government circles, he came in second in the 2003 federal Progressive Conservative leadership election and has never been tested in a party leadership role.

"Welcome to the #pcldr race @JimPrentice. We've been looking forward to you stepping into the arena. :-)" Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith tweeted late on Monday.

Many Alberta Tories were waiting with bated breath to see if Mr. Prentice would take the plunge, and former municipal affairs minister Ken Hughes is the only other candidate to announce his entry officially to the PC party leadership race. Some Alberta cabinet ministers have left the door open to a run. Others, such as Finance Minister Doug Horner, have mused about entering, but have also expressed support for Mr. Prentice.

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In recent weeks, several high-ranking PC members and Calgary business leaders have been pushing Mr. Prentice to seek the leadership.

Mr. Redford resigned in March in the midst of an uproar over her travel spending and dissent within the ranks of her party.

Mr. Prentice left federal politics in late 2010 to become a senior executive at CIBC. In March, Enbridge Inc. tapped the former Indian Affairs minister to help pave the way for First Nations support for its Northern Gateway pipeline. His spokesman said decisions on what will happen with his work for Enbridge will come in the days ahead.

"Obviously, that's been part of the contemplation that's gone on, and why it's taken some time to come to this."

Although speculation has been rampant in recent days that Mr. Prentice would run in Calgary-Elbow, the riding in the south of the city currently held by Ms. Redford – who is still an MLA – the spokesman said Mr. Prentice has not given any thought to where he will run. Mr. Prentice was MP for Calgary Centre North from 2004-2010 and owns a house in northwest Calgary.

Sources say Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer is expected to be Mr. Prentice's campaign manager. One key element for Mr. Prentice in recent days was the consent of his wife, Karen.

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Mr. Prentice is calling other potential candidates and giving them a heads up on his plans, sources say, in case this news would alter their decisions.

Follow on Twitter: @kellycryderman and @stevenchase

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Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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