Alberta's Progressive Conservative leadership race doesn't officially begin until Thursday, but the Jim Prentice campaign team has already been forced to deny accusations it is pushing for merger talks between the Official Opposition Wildrose party and the long-governing Tories.
Mr. Prentice still isn't speaking to reporters, but is expected to pick up his contest papers from party headquarters Thursday. His team denied Wednesday Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith's claim this week that "official" but unnamed members of the Prentice camp urged merger discussions between the two parties to smooth the path for a PC re-election. Mr. Prentice's campaign team called on Ms. Smith to reveal the names of those who made contact with her party.
"Neither Jim nor anybody on the team has made any overtures whatsoever either directly to Danielle or to anybody on her team," Prentice campaign co-chair Jay Hill said Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Ms. Smith clarified earlier comments that suggested she was approached by Mr. Prentice's team directly. She said a few weeks ago a person who used to be a staffer for Mr. Prentice when he was a federal cabinet minister contacted someone in her inner circle. The person was told to float the idea of merger talks in advance of the 2016 provincial election and gauge her reaction. Ms. Smith said she told the member of her inner circle to tell Mr. Prentice: "Absolutely not interested." She would not reveal any names.
Ms. Smith said he should be speaking for himself instead of through "backroom" intermediaries. "We're not the least bit interested in clearing the way for him to be able to waltz into the premier's chair without opposition," she said.
Mr. Prentice has attracted the endorsement of Alberta cabinet ministers, and is the presumed favourite in the race that will see a new PC party leader and premier crowned in September. However, with Alberta small-c conservatives leaning toward the Wildrose in recent polls after a series of PC spending scandals, the Opposition party has taken pains to point out ties between Mr. Prentice and the former Redford administration.
Asked about Mr. Prentice's thoughts on a Wildrose-PC merger, Mr. Hill said that question should be put to him if he wins the leadership race. "We're not talking about that," he said.
The charge from Ms. Smith came after two other potential leadership candidates stated they have been pressed to step aside. Again, the Prentice campaign team said no strong-arming came from them.
Both of the likely candidates were reluctant to speak on the issue Wednesday. Ric McIver, who resigned from cabinet and announced his intention to enter the race this month, told the Sun News Network Monday that "people on his [Mr. Prentice's] behalf have been trying to talk people out of running."
On Wednesday, just before a cross-Alberta tour to promote his leadership bid, Mr. McIver refused to answer questions regarding whether he had been pressed by anyone or not.
Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has not announced his intentions but is expected to enter the race in the weeks ahead. The Edmonton MLA said Wednesday "overzealous" Prentice supporters, but not members of the official campaign team, urged him not to enter the race.