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Prentice recruits campaign chairs in Alberta PC leadership race

Former cabinet minister and Calgary MP, Jim Prentice, speaks at the Alberta PC Party Leader's Dinner in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, May 8, 2014.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jim Prentice's campaign team shored up a list of prominent campaign chairs on the first official day of the race for leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives – but history shows the perceived front-runner's victory is far from assured.

There are at least two other likely contenders in the race – former cabinet minister Ric McIver and Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk. And favourites in this province often flame out before the final votes are counted.

Jim Dinning and Gary Mar lost races in 2006 and 2011 that many believed were locks. In both cases, well-organized challengers took advantage of growing resentment of the front-runners' perceived exceptional status, and their dens of backroom insiders. While the Alberta Tories have changed a preferential voting system criticized for skewing results in favour of second-choice candidates, long-time party members warn Mr. Prentice must still tread carefully.

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"It's not going to be, 'hand him the keys to the castle,'" said former cabinet minister Rick Orman. "It never is."

The political challenges have already begun. The Wildrose party has highlighted Mr. Prentice's ties to the principals of the high-powered public relations firm Navigator, which has received lucrative contracts for provincial government work, as well as his connections to people who supported Alison Redford. The former premier was forced to resign in March after a string of spending controversies and criticism of her leadership.

The long-governing party itself is under intense scrutiny. The high contest entry fee of $50,000 is needed to help offset the party's financial woes. This week, the Official Opposition Wildrose, far ahead in polls, accused the Prentice camp of engaging in the "fantasy" of merger talks between the two small-c conservative parties to allow for an easier road to victory in the 2016 election – a charge his campaign denied.

On Thursday, Mr. Prentice posted a picture on Twitter that showed him picking up nomination papers, but a formal campaign launch is not expected until next week. His spokesman, Jason Hatcher, said an announcement has been delayed to follow new rules that leadership campaigns not spend or raise money before they're officially registered.

But close to 30 per cent of the 58-member PC caucus has already announced they're supporting Mr. Prentice.

The campaign has also recruited campaign co-chairs that give Mr. Prentice broad representation, including Jay Hill, a retired Conservative MP; Shirley McClellan, a former cabinet minister with strong links to the Klein era and rural Alberta; Patricia Mitsuka, well-known in Edmonton's municipal politics scene; and Calgary MLA Manmeet Bhullar, 34, the province's youngest cabinet minister, known for getting out the vote.

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