Albertans will go to the polls on April 23 to elect the next provincial government.
The writ was issued around 10 a.m. MT Monday when Premier Alison Redford visited Lt.-Gov. Donald Ethell in his office at the Alberta legislature.
"This election will be a defining moment, where we will decide what we want the future to be and how we want to conduct ourselves," Redford said afterwards on the steps of the legislature, surrounded by members of her caucus.
"And I'm looking forward to talking to Albertans and letting them make those decisions over the next 28 days."
The 28-day campaign is expected to be hard-fought. After months of preparation, Redford is seeking her first mandate after taking over the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party in October.
But Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party wants to erode the Tories' sizable 66-seat majority by tapping into what it perceives is a growing dissatisfaction with the governing party. Recent polls have shown the party moving up in support.
Smith told people at her campaign launch on Monday that Albertans have a choice to make.
"We're in this to give Albertans something new," she said. "Something many of them have not had before. A choice."
"Three of the four Wildrose members of the legislature were Progressive Conservatives when they were last elected in 2008, so the election will be a test of the party's popularity with Alberta voters.
The stakes are also high for Smith, who is making her first bid for a seat since becoming leader of the right-wing party in October 2009.
Liberals, NDP hope for gains
Albertans elected two New Democrats in 2008: party leader Brian Mason in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood and Rachel Notley in Edmonton-Strathcona.
Mason is hoping to build on the success of the federal NDP and believes the party can benefit from vote-splitting on the right in the 2012 contest.
Mason said Monday the NDP wants to be seen as a party that fights for families.
"They can vote for a party that stands with the rich and powerful over the interests of ordinary families or they can vote for Alberta's New Democrats," he said.
Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman officially kicked off his party's campaign at the high-end Fairmont Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton — a location that was chosen to make a point about a shortage of long-term care spaces in Alberta.
"We have over 500 seniors waiting for care in our acute care hospitals at $1,200 a night," Sherman told reporters as he gestured at the hotel. "And in this hotel behind us, the cost is $230 a night. Imagine the cost savings."
Sherman, a former Tory MLA who was kicked out of caucus in late 2010, was elected Alberta Liberal leader in September.
The Liberals are aiming to make gains under his leadership after the party lost seven of its 16 seats in 2008.
The party lost another seat in 2010 when Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor left the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent.
The Liberals are still nominating candidates; so far they have people running in 73 of 87 ridings. Sherman says the party will have a full slate of candidates by April 23.
The upstart Alberta Party, led by former Hinton mayor Glenn Taylor, is running 27 candidates, three-quarters of them in Edmonton and Calgary.
Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor joined the party in January 2011 after spending some time as an independent but he has decided not to seek re-election.
'A brutal couple of weeks'
Pollster Bruce Cameron of Return On Insight calls the 2012 election one of the most competitive Alberta races in about a generation.
"Wildrose has been closing the gap on the PCs," he said. "The PCs have had a brutal couple of weeks."
Since February, Redford has had to deal with a number of controversies.
Earlier this month, she suspended Gary Mar, Alberta's trade representative in Asia, pending the outcome of an investigation over allegations he used his position to raise funds for his failed Tory leadership bid.
Her former chief of staff was forced to apologize after he used Twitter to accuse a city councillor of lying when she said municipalities were funded according to how they vote.
The Tories had another controversy on their hands when the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation revealed MLAs received $1,000 a month to sit on a committee that hadn't met in more than three years.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said there's more buzz around this election than he has seen in previous campaigns.
"Redford's only been in power for a couple months," he said. "Danielle Smith has never campaigned on the provincial stage. Raj Sherman is a new leader as well. So, you've got a competitive election and some fresh faces."
Bratt said the Highwood riding just south of Calgary will be a key riding to watch as Smith tries to win a seat in the legislature.