For the past eight months, it has been easy to mistake Alison Redford's campaign to take over Alberta's Progressive Conservatives as an attempt to sink them.
Ms. Redford's scorched-earth approach to becoming premier has been anything but conventional, furrowing the brows of her colleagues with attack after attack on the governing party.
She has dismissed the "arrogance" of her own cabinet, slammed a controversial land law and pushed for a judicial inquiry into her government's handling of the health-care file. Her caucus is not amused: Premier Ed Stelmach has likened her to a New Democrat, and just one of her 66 fellow PC MLAs is backing her bid.
No matter for Ms. Redford, it seems. A poll this week, as controversial as it is surprising, has shown the Calgary lawyer surging to second place in a field of six, a strong position under the party's two-ballot system. Despite running against the PC grain, the red Tory has emerged as a contender.
"I've been talking about a pretty deliberate message about change," the 46-year-old told The Globe and Mail. "No one around my cabinet table supported me. And I think that speaks to their concern about how much change that I would bring."
The biggest knock on Ms. Redford is that she is too progressive for a party with rural roots. "There's some respect for her, but also some wariness she might be a liberal," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University.
Some of Ms. Redford's policies are indeed liberal-esque: implementing comprehensive (and expensive) "family care centres" as a pillar of what is already Canada's costliest health system, proposing higher government payments to the disabled and supporting pay hikes for employees of non-profit agencies.
"If she wins," one top Alberta Liberal said, "we might as well just fold up the tent and go home."
Ms. Redford's conservative credentials, however, run deep. She has strong ties to the federal Tories and has worked with Joe Clark and former Harper cabinet minister Jim Prentice. "I've always considered her political instincts to be unusually strong," Mr. Clark said in an e-mail. "She not only analyzes, she understands. I think her premiership would be very positive, and would focus Alberta on what the province could become."
More significantly, the right-wing Wildrose Party, viewed as the Tories' biggest threat, says Ms. Redford's policies have most closely matched their own. She's reaching out to the right.
"I don't actually think Albertans are as ideological as some partisan workers. You know what? Give Albertans a little bit more credit than that," Ms. Redford said. "What they want to hear is policy, what they want to hear is solutions."
Born in B.C. and raised in Alberta, Ms. Redford studied law at the University of Saskatchewan before embarking on a legal career that included stints with the European Union, Commonwealth Secretariat and Canadian government. She was one of four election commissioners appointed by the UN to oversee Afghanistan's first election.
In Alberta, she was elected in 2008 and immediately named to cabinet. Married with one child, she's whip-smart and warm, if a little stuffy, with voters. But what's most striking is her willingness to taunt the party establishment – a scrappiness that has lured volunteers away from another campaign. "That has not pleased a number of people," said Rod Love, former premier Ralph Klein's long-time chief of staff.
It was Ms. Redford who once tried to wrest a federal Conservative nomination from gaffe-prone MP Rob Anders. Why? "Because Rob Anders did not speak to the province that I wanted to live in."
Ms. Redford lost that gamble and, to win this time, faces several hurdles – including that she may not actually be in second place. The poll, released by the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, was based on a leaked membership list of 22,000 from early September. Campaigns have asked who broke party rules by leaking it to the Herald and suggested it was "salted," or skewed, with supporters of a particular campaign.
"The list in question is not at all an accurate reflection of the membership that will be participating in our leadership process," party president Bill Smith said.
All six camps told The Globe they didn't leak it. "It had to be gerrymandered," rival candidate Rick Orman alleged. Herald editor-in-chief Lorne Motley said his paper stands behind the list's accuracy.
Although polls are consistently terrible at predicting party leadership races, the result has boosted Ms. Redford's stock. She has set her sights on frontrunner Gary Mar, a long-time cabinet minister who was most recently Alberta's advocate in Washington. "I don't come to the table with solutions from 15 years ago," Ms. Redford said of their differences. (Mr. Mar's camp declined an interview request.)
Both are progressive Calgary lawyers with many of the same donors, but they're in dramatically different positions heading into Saturday's first ballot. Mr. Mar is the choice of caucus and has, in the poll, about 31 per cent support. Ms. Redford is at 20 per cent and appears to be surging at the right time.
Not that she's taking anything for granted: "At the end of the day, the only poll that's going to matter is on polling day."