The Calgary Stampede is Canada's biggest cultural celebration, which makes it a can't-miss event for political leaders looking to raise their profiles or solidify their bases.
This year, the 10-day extravaganza also marks its centennial, and combined with Alberta's booming economy and population, politics has become a key Stampede sideshow. Leaders from the federal Conservative government and the struggling opposition Liberals have already used pancake breakfasts and barbecues as partisan rallies touting their policies and attacking each other.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who annoyed Albertans with the Official Opposition's anti-oil-sands rhetoric earlier this year, arrives Thursday for two days of Stampeding. Green Party leader Elizabeth May arrived in Calgary before Stampede even started.
Looming is a by-election in Calgary Centre, adding extra political urgency to the handshake tour.
Speaking to 900 supporters on the weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lauded his economic strategy as besting those of global superpowers in Europe, the United States and Japan. Canada is a "great country rising," he said.
At a separate event, which drew a few hundred Liberal supporters, Interim Leader Bob Rae accused Mr. Harper of shaky environmental policies, fiscal imprudence and shredding Canada's social safety net. Many of the government's policies are "horsefeathers," he said.
Harold Jansen, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, said Stampede is a significant symbolic event for politicians, regardless of how much power they wield in Ottawa.
"It is a necessary thing you have to do," he explained. "If you don't do it, it looks like you don't understand Calgary, it looks like you don't understand an important part of the province, and an important part of the country."
Forty-four Tory MPs and four senators showed up at Mr. Harper's event Saturday evening, including Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews – all from out of town. The Prime Minister's Office said the politicians paid for their own barbecue tickets, but referred questions about transportation and accommodation costs to their individual offices.
Meanwhile, three MPs from the Liberal benches – Quebec's Justin Trudeau, Ontario's Carolyn Bennett, and Saskatchewan's Ralph Goodale – joined Mr. Rae. The Liberal party paid for Mr. Rae's trip, a spokesperson from his office said.
Pollster Tim Woolstencroft with The Strategic Counsel in Toronto said national politicians can't afford to miss this "iconic event."
"Harper needs to attend because it is one of the few times he actually visits the city where he represents a constituency," he said. "The others are going because Calgary and the Stampede have national stature."
The Liberals have the most to gain from shaking hands at Stampede, according to Prof. Jansen.
"They just cannot afford to continue to be frozen out of the West if they have any hope of contending for power nationally," he said. "Stampede is a very important symbolic event…to show that you're not just writing off this part of the country. You're showing that you're here, that you're taking place at an important cultural event."
Calgary will soon see a federal by-election after the resignation of Conservative MP Lee Richardson in Calgary Centre, who is now working for Alberta Premier Alison Redford. While few expect the Tories to lose the downtown riding – and the Liberals haven't elected an MP in this city since 1968 – the Grits are using this occasion to campaign heavily.
"People feel the sense that there's a real opportunity to send a message to Mr. Harper that people aren't happy with the way he's running things," said the Liberal's Mr. Trudeau, who dressed in cowboy duds and wowed local supporters over the weekend.
Despite the Western hospitality on display, Calgary remains hostile territory for the left. The Grits have a very slim chance of winning Calgary Centre, but could pull off an upset if they choose a popular candidate and run a tight campaign, while at the same time the Tories opt for a candidate too far on the right, said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University. Meanwhile, he does not expect the NDP, which holds one federal seat in Alberta, to pour money and effort into the upcoming by-election.
The government has not set a date for the run-off.
Despite their isolation from power, local Liberal hopefuls used Stampede events to declare their plan to seek the nomination for Calgary Centre.
"Any Liberal running [in] an election in southern Alberta faces small odds," said environmentalist and former lawyer Harvey Locke, who hopes to be the Liberal candidate. "But there is a difference between horses against machine guns and David and Goliath. And I think this seat is a David and Goliath proposition, not a horses and machine guns proposition – because one is pointless and the other you have a chance."
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal, said the real race in the riding will be for the Conservative nomination, not the actual by-election. "It is going to be a battle between the right wing of the Conservative Party and the very, very right wing of the Conservative Party," he said.
Mr. Harper, whose popularity is waning compared with that of Mr. Mulcair in recent polls and who was accused over the weekend by the influential Economist magazine of using "bullying" tactics such as pushing through the budget omnibus bill, could easily skip the pancake circuit without losing support in Alberta. However, because of Stampede's influence, Calgarians would find repeat absences from any political leader – even Mr. Harper – offensive.
Indeed, Mr. Harper revelled in the opportunity to boast about his majority government's policies on his home turf. "Not every one of these measures is popular with everybody, but they are all good for Canada," said Mr. Harper. "Canada will not slip back the way so many other developed countries are slipping back."
While party faithful lapped up their leaders' stump speeches, some folks at the Stampede grounds were less enthused. Retirees Rose McNown and her husband, Murray Croot, who are here from Ontario to watch their granddaughter trick-rider compete, said politics isn't top of mind.
"I'm not going to vote for you because you came to Stampede," Ms. McNown said.
That doesn't surprise pollster Mr. Woolstencroft.
"Attending the Stampede doesn't really help these politicians because, in the end, the event is a party," he said.