09/09/2011 01:54 EDT | Updated 11/09/2011 05:12 EST

Alberta Liberals gather Saturday to pick leader, galvanize new supporters

EDMONTON - Alberta's embattled Liberal party is to select a new boss Saturday following a leadership campaign that has galvanized the membership and acrimoniously divided the candidates.

About 30,000 voters are casting ballots by phone, online or in person to pick a replacement for David Swann. The winner is to be announced at the main gym on Edmonton's University of Alberta campus.

That figure is six times the 4,500 who selected Swann in the last leadership vote in 2008.

This time the party opened voting, not just to paid party members, but also to anyone who wanted to sign up for free as a "supporter."

"We're a bit agog frankly," said party executive director Corey Hogan in an interview.

"We hoped it would be a smashing success, but in some ways we've even exceeded our earlier optimism."

The signup has had its glitches and hang-ups — it was reported that some of the voters included deceased people and pets.

Hogan said those problems have been solved and all voters must ultimately be ticked off on the provincial list of electors.

Some voters were left off earlier lists and had to be added to the rolls this week, including 100 for perceived front-runner Raj Sherman.

That decision angered rivals Hugh MacDonald and Bill Harvey. Harvey went as far as to suggest the party is pro-Sherman and that a Sherman win would be stained.

While numbers are sketchy, it's believed Sherman, a former Progressive Conservative legislature member, has signed up over half the 30,000, mainly through extensive community connections and a rapacious demon-dialler phone fanout.

The 45-year-old emergency room doctor has been a lightning rod for controversy for a year, making headlines and appearing on national TV talk shows.

Sherman is a first-term member of the legislature. He carried the Edmonton-Meadowlark seat for the Tories in the 2008 election and was made parliamentary assistant in health, effectively the No. 2 minister on the file.

But his Tory tenure ended in November when he was kicked out of caucus for publicly criticizing Premier Ed Stelmach and the cabinet for failing to come through on promises to reduce long wait lists and other health reforms.

He became a folk hero for those feeling alienated from the health system. But as an Independent member and, later, as a member of the Alberta Liberal party, he also proved himself to be erratic and a bit demagogic.

Earlier this year, he stood in the house and, using parliamentary privilege that gives politicians immunity from slander lawsuits while speaking in the chamber, accused two high-ranking health officials of malfeasance.

For weeks he promised to table evidence to buttress the allegations, but it never materialized and he never apologized.

Sherman's "profile is huge. His name recognition is huge. And it's huge in an area that's most important to Albertans — health care," said Doreen Barrie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

"He'll attract people to the party who may not have voted Liberal otherwise.

"But he has challenges. If he wins, he has to convince voters he has a grasp of other issues, like the economy, agriculture, and the environment."

Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan University, said party traditionalists aren't quite sure what to do with Sherman.

"There's a bit of a reticence, a hesitance, to embrace this phenomemon of Raj Sherman, political agitator," said Mensah.

"The question is can this political agitator be transformed into a consensus builder, something the Liberal Party sorely needs."

The Liberals have fallen on tough times. Although they captured 26 per cent of the vote in the last election, the caucus was sliced in half to eight. The party was again shut out in rural areas and lost ground to the Tories in its traditional Edmonton stronghold.

Recent polls suggest the party is dropping even further as it loses ground to the NDP and the upstart centrist Alberta Party.

Sherman's two main rivals are considered to be Edmonton Liberals Laurie Blakeman and Hugh MacDonald. Both are four-time members of the legislature known for their hard work and sharp and informed criticism of government.

Blakeman, 53, has focused on arts and social justice issues, and has served as Opposition house leader. Her shining moment came in 2004 when she stood her ground during a committee meeting as then-premier Ralph Klein goaded and insulted her when she insisted he provide proof he didn't take a golfing trip on public money.

MacDonald, 56, grew up on Prince Edward Island, came to Alberta to work and has developed a reputation as one of the hardest working members of the legislature, particularly on labour issues. He has said he has never missing a day in the assembly in 14 years.

Both have promised to revitalize the party at its grassroots, although Blakeman would focus on cities, where the Liberals have the best chance to gain seats.

Mensah said what the party would gain in political experience and continuity with a Blakeman or MacDonald win, it would lose in name recognition and a fresh start.

"A Blakeman or MacDonald win would be a safe and comfortable choice, but the opportunity for growth and momentum would be lost.

"They have to realize this Liberal party cannot simply engage in a prolonged fight with the NDP for the left vote, which is really a marginal part of Alberta politics. They need to be completely embracing of the middle."

Harvey, a Calgary businessman and Bruce Payne — a southern Alberta pastor and union leader — round out the field of five candidates, but are considered long shots.