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No new candidates join Tory leadership race; Calgary not destroyed by earthquake again today!

Alberta Leadership frontrunner Gary Mar

Well, the race to replace Ed Stelmach as the Conservative premier of Alberta is officially under way and the only surprise is that there are no surprises.

As even the Edmonton Journal headlined it, notwithstanding the need of the market-driven media to turn this into an exciting horserace: "Shortage of surprises as Tories finalize their leadership bids; familiar faces set to battle for top job as provincial Conservatives prepare for internal vote."

In other words, at least at this point, Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

Oh well, there are still 62 days for something exciting to happen… The first vote is scheduled to take place on Sept. 17. If that fails to produce a clear-cut winner, a runoff ballot between the three top vote getters is scheduled for Oct. 1. Any Albertan who pays five bucks for a Conservative Party "membership" is eligible to vote, as well as to be counted later when the Tories want to boast about how popular they are.

When the nomination deadline passed Friday, the six candidates we discussed here back at the end of May were still the only six candidates in the race: Ted Morton, Doug Horner, Doug Griffiths, Gary Mar, Alison Redford and Rick Orman.

Nomination Day was so dull it's hard to write this story differently from anyone else's, so I'll just quote Graham Thomson from the Journal, who actually gets money to pound out this stuff: "They all paid the $40,000 entry fee and submitted nomination papers signed by at least 500 card-carrying party members."

Three other candidates had dropped hints they were pondering a run. But in the event, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk called a news conference and said he'd be backing Gary Mar and Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett answered his phone and said he’d be backing no one for the time being, thank you very much. Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky? Well, his putative run ended with a whimper, not a bang. He just didn't bother to show up.

Back in May, I wrote the candidates all up as if they were horses in a racetrack tipsheet, concluding: Mar to win, Morton to place, Horner to show, and Redford the Wild Card.

Notwithstanding their various caucus endorsements -- not a good guide to leadership race success as B.C. Premier Christy Clark proved not so long ago with the support of only one caucus MLA -- I don't know that I'd revise that opinion today. Redford has run a better campaign than I expected, Mar's campaign has been less engaging than anyone could have predicted and both Morton and Horner have been so low key you almost can't see them for the grass. Presumably they're up to something….

So here's my revised tipsheet, this time in reverse order of my assessment of their likely success. The results, come to think of it, make me think of Herman's Hermits: "Second verse, same as the first!" Caucus support numbers are courtesy of Dave Cournoyer's excellent Daveberta.ca blog.

Doug Griffiths: At 38, the Battle River-Wainwright MLA is the youngest in the race. As a member of the short-lived "Fiscal Four" he's on clearly on the party's fiscally conservative side. He's smart and speaks well, but, really, he's mainly in the race to make a name for himself. If he fails to do well on the first ballot, he won't have done himself any favours. Does he have any money? Who knows? He has $40,000 less than he had two weeks ago, anyway -- hope he didn't remortgage his house!  He's supported by only one MLA, another member of the former Fiscal Foursome. (Yet another has decamped to the Wildrose Alliance and the last is backing Morton.)

Rick Orman: This well-heeled Calgary oilman, youthful-voiced radio political commentator and former cabinet minister is nearly 63, so he saves Morton the embarrassment of being the oldest candidate in the race. He's just as far to the right as Morton, maybe further, clearly trying to encroach on Wildrose Alliance territory. But as a relic of the era of premier Don Getty, he's so far from politics he is only the longest of long-shots. Caucus supporters: Zero. But he's said to have pots of money, so at least he can have fun. Despite some very enthusiastic supporters, I haven't seen anything that persuades me to revise this assessment.

Now it gets hard, the order part, at least, because I still think any of the next four could come out on top.

Alison Redford: Only 46, well known as an international legal authority, a polished performer and as tough as nails, the only woman in the race is the brainiest of this lot by far. The question is, would voters who loved a Grade 9 dropout like former premier Ralph Klein take to someone who is so obviously smart, and who also has a reputation for suffering fools so ungladly that, like Margaret Thatcher, she could probably make a manly cabinet minister cry? The first-term MLA for Calgary-Elbow and former Justice Minister leans to the Red Tory side of the party equation but is hard to categorize. She's run a smart campaign and is said to have lots of money to run it with. She certainly has high-profile donors. Her political staff have made some clever moves and forced the debate onto her turf. If there's a wild card who could come from behind to win, Redford is it. She has the support of only one MLA.

Doug Horner: Former deputy premier, long-time cabinet heavy hitter and part of Stelmach's inner-circle, the 50-year-old MLA for Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert has experience and a steady hand on his side, but his reputation as "Ed Stelmach Lite" is still working against him. He's more conservative than the party's right-wing opponents give him credit for being, but he's clearly part of the party’s moderate centre. He’s got the support of a dozen MLAs, the largest group, mostly from rural ridings that reflect Premier Stelmach's power base. One suspects he may have the personal support of the premier as well, although Stelmach has never said.

Ted Morton: No question that the American-born Morton, 62, a University of Calgary PhD political scientist known for his hard-line fiscal views, is the darling of the party's right wing. Unless, of course, it’s Orman that they love. As such, he's the most likely candidate to woo back defectors to the Wildrose Alliance, but also the most likely to frighten moderate voters away. After a strong finish in the 2006 leadership race, the Foothills-Rocky View MLA is said to have hung onto his supporters' contact information, so he should have a leg-up on the first ballot. If he doesn't win on the first ballot -- a possibility the similarly elderly Orman makes less likely -- it is said here he's finished. He has the support of 10 MLAs.

Gary Mar: Relatively youthful at 48, Mar is smart, and, as holder of several important portfolios under premier Klein, experienced. As Alberta's "envoy" to Washington, the Calgary lawyer remained in the public eye, but far enough from government to be relatively untainted by Stelmach's blunders. He’s also the favourite of the Conservative party establishment, which should be a plus, and is backed by the same crowd of political insiders that backed Calgary businessman and former favourite Jim Dinning back in 2006, which may not be. He's got a big budget, but his campaign has been weirdly uninspired to date. He has the support of 11 MLAs, including a passel of cabinet ministers. I still think he's going to win, possibly on the first ballot. But it's his to lose.

As has been said here before and as any punter knows, in a horserace, even a ploddingly dull one, anything can happen! It just hasn't happened yet. The first leadership all-candidates' meeting takes place in Vermilion, 200 kilometres east of Edmonton, on Thursday.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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