Leaders get ready for key debate

Televised forum offers chance to change voters' minds

Alberta's provincial politicians are preparing for a rough and tumble two weeks as the election campaign passes the midway point and party leaders set their sights on what could be a critical TV debate Thursday.

At stake is the future of the 41-year Progressive Conservative dynasty, as well as the possibility of a new Wildrose government, while the Liberals and NDP jostle for attention amid the bitter battle between the front-running parties.

The first half of a hard-fought campaign has seen opinion polls tilt in favour of Danielle Smith's Wildrose party, putting Alison Redford's long-governing Progressive Conservatives in the unfamiliar position of running second.

But politicians and observers say nothing is settled yet, and are expecting a gruelling home stretch before voters go to the polls April 23.

"The last two weeks of the election could just be a wild ride," said David Taras, a political analyst at Mount Royal University.

"The big question overhanging the election (is) whether people have already made their decision."

And, for that reason, the leaders' debate could be critical, Taras added. "I think people are open still and I think the debate can be decisive," he said.

Leger Marketing vice-president Ian Large said over the past few months, Albertans have seen Wildrose come from well back in the polls to where the party could actually be fighting to form a majority government.

"That's the more significant move," Large said. "It's not where the numbers stand to-day, it's the speed with which they've gotten here."

But Tory officials, who want to extend the party's 41 years at the provincial helm, have also taken note of the rapid movement in the polls and aren't discouraged.

"When polls move that fast, I have to believe that it's a re-action as opposed to long-term decision making," said Susan Elliott, PC campaign manager.

There's also a lot of undecided voters and Elliott expects Albertans will now be taking a hard look at the differences between the parties.

"Albertans are taking a really careful, intelligent, thoughtful look at the options and they haven't settled their minds yet," Elliott said.

But Wildrose's Airdrie candidate Rob Anderson believes that when people more fully examine his party and its policies, they will like what they see.

"That's already happening," Anderson said. "All Albertans want is good government. They want a government that's going to balance the books, isn't going to raise taxes, isn't going to be irresponsible in slashing them, is just going to govern very thoughtfully and make sure that the priorities are taken care of."

One key opportunity where the parties can distinguish themselves comes Thursday night with the televised leaders' debate.

"It's pretty important," said pollster Marc Henry of Think-HQ Public Affairs in Calgary. "When you are behind, you've got to take every opportunity that you can and this is obviously high profile."

Neither Smith nor Redford campaigned on a quiet Easter Sunday.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman spoke with media Sunday afternoon as the party con-firmed it would field a full slate of candidates.

In Edmonton, NDP Leader Brian Mason spent Sun-day afternoon practising for the leaders' debate. He said he hopes it will be free of the nastiness and personal attacks that characterized the early days of the campaign.

Mason's goal is to get out his party's message, "so people have a clear idea of what the NDP stands for."

Sherman, who's going to be talking about community and families in the coming week, said he's looking forward to the debate.

"Albertans will look at all the leaders side by side and have a chance to see whose ideas they can trust," Sherman said.

Edmonton Journal, Mon Apr 9 2012
Byline: Tony Seskus

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