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Alberta Election: NDP gains traction, Wildrose comes close to full slate, but don't count PCs out

Rachel Notley

According to Mr. Google, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who celebrated her 51st birthday today, has only been called "charismatic" twice.

The first time was on April 7, at the end of a column by the Globe and Mail's Western Canada correspondent Gary Mason.

Mason -- who, by the way, is as far as anyone knows no relation to former Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason -- said the same thing again today, more forcefully.

Referring to the extremely strong standing by the NDP shown in several recent polls, Mason concluded: "Rejuvenated under the charismatic leadership of Rachel Notley, the Dippers have a real shot at winning a majority of the 19 seats up for grabs in the capital."

If these kind of surging polling results continue, I expect we'll be hearing that "charismatic" reference more often in the future. How else could Notley be described in such circumstances?

But if things don't look particularly good for Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice right now -- and this hasn't been a great week for him, with both the NDP and the Wildrose Party doing very well -- I wouldn't go counting the PCs out just yet.

There's the matter of that $5.6-million-plus campaign war chest they've been able to assemble thanks to the generosity of their friends in the corporate sector. And there's the strategy that worked for them back in 2012 and could well work for them again in 2015 -- that is, portraying their opponents as extremists.

"When I was with Redford, we made the decision to portray Danielle Smith and Wildrose as extreme," Calgary-based political strategist Stephen Carter told the Globe and Mail in another story yesterday. "People are motivated more by fear than opportunity," he explained.

"The hyper-engaged know how they're going to vote. The less engaged make their decision in last 72 hours to 72 seconds before marking their ballot. It is those people who can decide an election," said Carter, who was Redford's campaign manager in both her leadership run and the general election, and later served briefly as her chief of staff.

As the Globe's Mason said in his column, there can be no doubt Prentice is worried, and the 44-year-old PC dynasty he leads isn't just going to surrender without a bitter fight, as has been said a lot here and in many other places recently.

Prentice, as is well known, has been trying the same strategy used by Redford and described by Carter, although not as energetically as one might have expected -- which suggests the Tories' own polling may not be as grim from their perspective as the polls the media have been commentating on.

The Tory accusations of extremism brought some well-deserved mockery Prentice's way. I wasn't the only person to point out that the premier is, in effect, calling the sainted Peter Lougheed an extremist, since he advocated many of the same policies now being urged by Notley's NDP and dismissed out of hand as extremist by the Prentice PCs.

One glaring example of such "extreme ideas and ideologies," as Prentice put it, advocated by Lougheed throughout his life: that we Albertans should treat our resources as if we are their owners.

Even by the extreme right-wing standards of the present, the product of 40 years of neoliberal think-tankery and right-wing media domination, the NDP under Notley is pretty centrist, maybe even a little too far to the right.

As Ricardo Acuna of the Parkland Institute observed in a recent column in Vue Magazine: "Jim Prentice probably took some political science courses during his university studies, but it would appear he needs a refresher. In particular, it seems, he needs a reminder about the nature of the left-right political spectrum and exactly what the extremes of that spectrum look like.

"If Prentice wants to see who the extremist party supporting the extreme ideology is in this election, all he needs to do is -- to borrow an expression -- look in the mirror," Acuna wrote. "If Albertans are looking for moderate policy proposals and political ideas in the centre of the spectrum, they should be looking at anyone but the Conservatives and Wildrose."

The thing is, the obvious factual flaws in the premier's efforts to monger a certain amount of fear may not matter nearly as much as how widely they are disseminated, which with more than $5.6 million to spend in three weeks could be very widely indeed.

That the Tories have opponents to the left and to the right makes it a little harder for them, though. If you make a serious effort to label one of those parties as extremist, it just might work. If you attack them both with the same accusation, it just sounds like you're crazy.

What's more, negative advertising doesn't always work out quite the way the advertiser planned, as the famous 2006 "No Plan" TV ads attacking then-premier Ed Stelmach's lack of, well, plans, amply proved.

Obviously those ads had an impact, even though Stelmach won the 2008 election and the Liberals, who had nothing to do with them, were blamed by PC partisans. Nevertheless, Alberta Tories insist every day, to this day, that they do have a plan. It's just hard for them to make the case it's a very good one.

The charismatic Notley, meanwhile, also pretty obviously has a plan, so the PCs will do their best to blow it off as extremism -- which may or may not work in the limited time left to them. Even an expensive smear, after all, takes a while to sink in, as one can only hope the overconfident Tories have forgotten.

+ + +

Only PCs and NDP manage to field full slates -- but Wildrose comes closer than predicted

While only two of Alberta’s five major parties managed to field full slates of candidates as predicted in this space, the Wildrose Party only came up one short. Not only that, but Wildrose Leader Brian Jean insisted to the media this afternoon everything was just fine five days ago and implied the problem was caused by Elections Alberta's persnickety procedures.

So I just can't tell readers why a well-connected and consistently reliable Wildrose strategist insisted yesterday the party was likely to be five or six candidates short in Edmonton, except to wonder if it's a case of smoke being evidence of the existence of a smoke-making machine as President John F. Kennedy famously put it, a manifestation of some sort of disagreement in Wildrose circles, or a merely prod to make something happen.

Regardless, in the event, soon after the 2 p.m. deadline for nomination papers to be filed, it was revealed as expected that only the governing PCs and the New Democrats had full slates of 87 candidates. The Wildrosers were almost there, with 86, only leaving Notley's secure Edmonton-Strathcona riding without a Wildroser in the contest.

The Alberta Liberals managed to find 56 candidates, insisting they are all of the highest quality and that not just any parachutist could apply, hence the low number. The Alberta Party, which has no seats in the Legislature, fielded 35, mostly in the province's two big cities.

In terms of gender balance, the New Democrats did better than any other party. More than half the NDP's candidates are women. That compares to roughly a quarter of the candidates of each of the other parties.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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