Alberta Election 2012: Thomson: Leaders' debate could prove to be pivotal point of election

EDMONTON - The Alberta election campaign officially began March 26th, but in many ways, the campaign really won't start until Thursday night. At 6:30 to be precise.

That's when the leaders of the four main political parties will face each other for the first and only televised debate of the campaign.

It promises to be a crucial moment, perhaps pivotal. Really.

I know it's a cliché to say leaders' debates are important, that they mark a watershed moment when voters finally start paying attention to the campaign. Then there's the cliché of clichés: there might be a "knock out" punch delivered at some point, a "you had an option, sir (or ma'am)" moment.

But this time it's true.

If the public opinion polls are correct, the election race has become a too-close-to-call horse race between the ruling Progressive Conservatives and the upstart Wildrose. The race appears to be so close that the opposition parties, NDP and Liberals, could end up holding the balance of power in a minority government.

We haven't seen this kind of race since 1993 when the Liberals almost defeated the Tories or since 1971 when the Tories defeated the Social Credit. We haven't seen this much excitement heading into a leaders' debate since, well, ever.

The stakes are always highest for the front-runner in these debates and what's deliciously confusing is that this time we aren't sure who the front-runner is. Conservative Leader Alison Redford will have to defend her foot-dragging response to the "no-meet" committee and her definition of what makes up a public inquiry into health care, while Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith will no doubt find herself having to fend off attacks by Redford, who has called some Wildrose polices on social issues frightening.

All the leaders say they want to focus on policies and avoid personal attacks, but plenty of people will be tuning in to see how nasty it gets.

Tories are flirting with their first electoral loss in 41 years and the only person who can save them is Redford, tonight. The Wildrose is on the cusp of Alberta's first electoral upset in 41 years and tonight is Smith's opportunity to solidify the party's standing.

Liberals are facing a possible wipeout on election day and tonight is Raj Sherman's chance to reverse the negative momentum. The NDP could be a major player in a minority government and Brian Mason has to convince his supporters to get out and give him as many seats as possible.

Every vote will count. I know that's a cliché, too, but there are so many ridings where the winner will squeak by with just a few votes that your vote really will make a difference not only to what happens in your own riding but in the whole province.

And you really can't count on the public opinion polls to tell you what's going to happen because polls sometimes create unexpected reactions.

Just look at the provincial election of 1997. With 10 days left in the campaign a poll said the Klein Conservatives were set to sweep Edmonton and wipe out the Liberals in the city. Instead, Liberals won 15 seats and the Conservatives got just two. So, what happened to the big Tory breakthrough forecast by the poll? Was the poll wrong?

No, the poll was probably dead on. The Tories were indeed headed to a city sweep. However, when Edmontonians realized the size of the Tory juggernaut, they decided to vote strategically, according to Conservative analysts after the election.

There are signs the same could happen again, this time to blunt the rise of the Wildrose. A Leger poll this week showed support softening for the Wildrose and strengthening for the Tories.

I discovered the same in my own unscientific survey of lunch diners at the Commerce Place food court in downtown Edmonton on Wednesday, where voters such as Jordan Hodges were having second thoughts about the Wildrose.

He was all set to send a message to the Conservatives "who have been in power for a long time," but he was turned off by the Wildrose promise for $300 energy dividend cheques.

"I think that really could be better spent on things that have lasting value instead of just giving to people to spend wildly on whatever and fritter away in bits and pieces," said Hodges, while his friend (who didn't want to be named) nodded.

His friend, whom I'll call "Fred," said he normally votes Liberal, but this time he'll hold his nose and vote PC to head off a Wildrose majority.

Edmonton has a record of surprising the politicians and confounding the pundits. In 1986, the New Democrats came from nowhere to win 16 seats and become a strong, vocal opposition.

This election campaign is far from over. Heck, it's only getting started, Thursday night at 6:30.

(The 90-minute leaders' debate is live on Global and CTV as well as CPAC and SUNTV with a radio broadcast on CHED. CBC will play a tape delay after the hockey game.)

Edmonton Journal, Apr 12 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson

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