The race to become Alberta's next premier is in its 11th hour and, to the dismay of some, remains up for grabs.
Many Progressive Conservatives had hoped they could avoid uncertainty by rallying behind a polished front-runner who could unify the embattled governing party. That man was Gary Mar.
The former cabinet minister earned the most first-ballot votes (41 per cent), had the most money, the most caucus support and a team of veterans running his campaign. He got the only major local newspaper endorsement. Three candidates who missed the cut for Saturday's final ballot all backed him, in the words of one, "because Gary's the person with 41 per cent." The troops rallied.
So why did Mr. Mar, with every apparent advantage, take a private plane to squeeze in a stop this week in tiny St. Paul, Alta., and speak to 34 people over coffee and Timbits?
He's there because the race, unpredictable by design, is still not wrapped up. Second-place candidate Alison Redford seems to have surged this week, in part because of a strong debate performance less than 24 hours after the sudden death of her mother. Meanwhile, third candidate Doug Horner is backed by many of the same people who thrust Premier Ed Stelmach from third to first during the last leadership race. Voter turnout is also expected to spike.
It all has Mr. Mar sprinting toward the finish line. "We do not take the outcome for granted," he said. "You can't let up on this."
Critically, if no candidate has more than 50 per cent, a preferential ballot kicks in. Second choices matter. And that's also why Mr. Mar was in St. Paul.
The region had exceptionally high first-ballot turnout, and 81 per cent backed Mr. Horner. Mr. Mar wants their second-choice votes this time around. "It doesn't take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out why he came to this rural riding," Don Schultz, head of the local constituency association, said outside the meeting Monday.
"We're backing Horner, but the second choice we're leaving up to people," Mr. Schultz said. "Up to this point, I thought I was going with Alison. But I'm on the fence after the meeting tonight."
This was precisely the point. "Showing up makes a difference," Mr. Mar said. "Diefenbaker famously said polls are for dogs. I happen to agree with him."
Mr. Mar has been perceived as the front-runner since his glitzy campaign launch in March. The 49-year-old Calgary lawyer and father of three has sought to cast himself as a candidate to transcend the three traditional bases of Alberta politics: Calgary, Edmonton and rural.
This would matter more if it were a general election; it's not. Only party members can vote for their leader, who will immediately become premier. And the last two party front-runners have lost. "Ultimately, a race like this is a retail sales operation," Mr. Mar said.
A Mar win would shift Alberta to a more aggressive pro-oil-sands position, with Mr. Mar keeping the intergovernmental affairs portfolio and becoming the face of an energy sector he unabashedly backs – he questions science around man-made climate change and dismisses climate activists as "professional cause-pleaders." He has mused about attacking Quebec on its asbestos industry.
He'll win if party members are fed up with the current cabinet (which he wasn't a part of) and want an articulate oil-sands champion.
Ms. Redford, meanwhile, has focused on health care and education, and Saturday's vote will likely be about whether her late surge is enough. Mr. Horner could win if he captures the same support as Mr. Stelmach, with whom he has much in common.
All three are relatively centrist, though Mr. Mar is open to more private health care and has cast himself as a fiscal hawk. He would be Canada's first premier of Chinese descent. Ms. Redford would be Alberta's first female premier. They'd all face a stiff challenge on the right flank from the libertarian Wildrose Party.
Second choices could be crucial. If there's no majority after Saturday's voting, the third-place candidate is dropped and only that person's supporters' second choices are counted. It's how Mr. Stelmach edged out Jim Dinning. "We learned a lot from Jim's campaign," Mr. Mar said.
At this week's final debate, candidates were asked who their second choice would be. Mr. Mar wouldn't say; Ms. Redford said Mr. Horner; Mr. Horner demurred, but plainly hinted his preference for Ms. Redford is "obvious." Mr. Mar, meanwhile, was the top second choice among respondents in the most recent poll.
The process is, as such, unpredictable. It's meant to open the doors of the party, president Bill Smith said. He likened the second ballot to a playoff round. "Once you're into the playoffs," he said, "it's a whole different ballgame."