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Red Deer leadership candidates forum helps illustrate why no Alberta Tory collapse is in sight

Surprising performance from Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Doug Griffiths

Sorry, there's no pleasure in saying this, but the Alberta Progressive Conservatives just aren't going to collapse in the next provincial election.

On the contrary, they may very well increase their number of seats.

Well, OK, anything could happen. There was a time last year when it looked as if it might happen to the Alberta Conservatives. But then Premier Ed Stelmach up and announced he was going to quit, confounding his enemies and astounding his friends.

It's also still true that Canadian electorates, even in Alberta, are volatile right now. But all that means is that the Tories will call an election as quickly as they practically can once they've chosen a leader -- and it's said here that whoever they choose doesn't really matter very much to their chances of continued political success.

The most recent poll we've seen says that with Premier Stelmach about to go out the door, the Tories are again riding high. And while there's no additional documentary evidence for this just yet, it's very hard to shake the feeling that they're riding even higher now than they were in the Environics poll in July that showed them with more than 50-per-cent support province wide.

Count on it that various political parties and others are conducting their own polls. Do you think for a minute that the Wildrose Alliance, for just one example, wouldn't be trumpeting the results if they had a poll that showed anything but another Tory electoral juggernaut?

So don't bet the farm -- or even the cost of a case of beer -- on anything but another Tory majority in Alberta, and soon.

Last Thursday's public forum in Red Deer for the six candidates vying for leadership of the Alberta PCs provided a good illustration of how this phenomenon works. It's pretty simple, actually: After 40 uninterrupted years in power, they have bench strength, and money, that no other party can match.

Each one of the six people on the stage in Red Deer is an extremely talented politician who has gone far beyond merely mastering the essential skills of politics. It was apparent after five minutes of questions that not one of these seasoned players was likely to make a minor fumble, let alone the kind of major mistake that the media prays for before an event of this sort.

Rick Orman and Alison Redford seemed a little tired. Gary Mar's rollercoaster oratory lends itself to parody. As for "mistakes," that was about it. Ted Morton sounded like the frontrunner he's again reputed to be, Doug Horner sounded like a man on a bit of a roll himself, and Doug Griffiths's performance was far stronger than I expected.

This isn't a commentary on their policy positions -- which range from pretty reasonable to bordering on abhorrent. It's merely an observation about their political skills: In the skills department, the Tories are the A-Team of Alberta politics.

Yeah, the party has its share of elected goofs and nonentities. With a caucus that big, how could they not? And other Alberta parties have politicians who can play in the big leagues too -- consider Rachel Notley of the New Democrats and Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance for two. But it really is a remarkable thing -- and a depressing one from the perspective of a supporter of another political philosophy -- that the Alberta PCs can field a whole group of leadership candidates this gifted.

It suggests that Premier Stelmach was an aberration -- or merely unlucky -- not the beginning of a downward trend.

This is possible because after so many years in power, as the Globe and Mail put it in a recent article, the Conservatives "are the New York Yankees of Alberta politics: It's not a question of whether young political talent will sign on, but when and for what."

Indeed, so skillfully did the six candidates skate around potential hazards, that your blogger was reduced to grading them on the basis of their performances and Tweeting their marks out to the masses. The marks handed out ranged from a C to an A. But really, people, without the benefits of a little Bell Curvery (just as students always suspect) they all would have gotten A-!

Oh, and they were all civil to one another -- obviously having concluded that not being polite would confer no advantage on the candidate who chose to be rude. Compare this to the gong show at one of the recent Alberta Liberal Party candidate forum on any level!

Unless something big happens between now and election day -- and here's betting nothing much does -- these Tories are going to walk away with it all again.

The only other party that has any hope of upward movement -- and this is not just partisanship speaking -- is the New Democrats. Indeed, it's possible that without increasing the size of their two-person caucus, the NDP could end up as the Official Opposition!

The day will come when the Alberta Progressive Conservatives are swept away on the tide of history. But that day won't be in 2011 or 2012.

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

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