09/16/2011 04:58 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Mar Attacks! Alberta Tory leadership favourite disputes old-boy politics label

EDMONTON - By Saturday night, or soon thereafter, citizen Gary Mar may become Alberta Premier Gary Mar.

It's an ascension supporters hail as the revival of a Progressive Conservative party suffering from hardened arteries and blinkered vision.

But critics say it will be nothing more than a new face on old-boy politics and, perhaps, the beginning of the end for public health care.

Party members vote Saturday to select among Mar and five other candidates to replace Premier Ed Stelmach as party leader and premier.

The results are to be announced at a downtown Calgary convention centre. If no candidate gets a majority, the top three move on to a final round of balloting Oct. 1.

Stelmach will step down as premier that day.

Political observers and polls suggest that Mar, a former health minister, has a commanding lead over Alison Redford, Doug Horner, Doug Griffiths, Rick Orman and Ted Morton.

Mar has campaigned on expanding Alberta trade by smashing through to Pacific Rim markets while at the same time diversifying the economy at home. His idea is to draw citizens more into public decision-making and leading a government that is a paragon of transparency.

Education Minister Dave Hancock, a Mar backer, says he was impressed with that kind of vision when the Calgary-born Mar worked with him in cabinet under former premier Ralph Klein.

"He was somebody I could talk to about the long-term, big picture of the province, where we wanted to go, rather than just focusing on the issue of the day all the time," said Hancock.

The vote follows more than eight months of campaigning that began in January. Stelmach made the surprise announcement he was leaving, reportedly turning the tables on fiscal hawks in caucus who threatened to bolt if the government brought down one more deficit budget.

It has been a relatively quiet campaign of editorial boards, pancake breakfasts, industry meet-and-greets and heaping plates of rubber chicken.

When Mar entered the race he was dubbed the front-runner. His handlers have been careful to keep him in a bubble, said political scientist Keith Brownsey.

"Mar has been insulated," said Brownsey, who teaches at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"He's kept quiet, smiled, said a lot of platitudes, kissed a lot of babies and shaken a lot of hands."

But Brownsey notes that at times the bubble has burst.

Mar's team has sparred with Redford, a fellow progressive Tory who, like Mar, has strong roots in Calgary and is battling him for the same supporters there.

Mar has pointed to the recent spike in homicides in Edmonton as an example of Redford failing as justice minister to affect anti-crime measures. Mar was Alberta's envoy in Washington before joining the race and Redford countered saying he had failed at that job by allowing environmentalists to frame the province as a purveyor of dirty oil.

The biggest fireworks in the campaign came in August when Mar said he wanted to at least talk about introducing more private delivery to fix an ailing public-health system.

Mar framed it as an economic debate. He said Alberta health care is not in a silo, that while the province dithers over what to do with private care, patients and doctors are already flying elsewhere to get surgery or to perform it.

Redford has jumped on Mar with both feet, trying to find the wedge issue that will bring lukewarm supporters from his camp over to hers.

Fiddle with the silo, she warns, and before you know it you've sold the farm.

"(More private care) is not what Albertans want and I won't do it," she told Mar to applause during a recent debate.

"I'm not abandoning the health-care system," Mar shot back. "Let me say this, Alison. If you're saying you don't want Albertans to pay for their own (health) services, does that mean you would STOP those Albertans who are going to other places to do that?"

Mar has also drawn the ire of rivals who say he talks about transparency but practices the same old hardball politics of arm-twisting and rule-bending.

In recent weeks one Mar volunteer was found giving away the $5 party memberships, which are required to vote. That was stopped. This week, supporters were found hawking memberships within the 50-metre no-go zone around advance polling stations.

Mar's team has also been seen busing in hundreds of voters, many of them seniors of Chinese descent. That's within the rules — those with mobility issues are allowed to get a ride.

To critics, herding in hundreds of otherwise disinterested people to mark an X smacks of sleazeball politics.

Mention that to Mar and his eyes flash.

"My parents were born in (Edmonton) but because they were Chinese they couldn't vote until 1947, even though they were Canadian citizens."

His supporters, he said, were at advance polling stations to help translate for Chinese voters. The buses were there for those who couldn't get to the polling stations on their own.

"It's ironic people lament there's poor voter turnout and (then) suggest we shouldn't be making every effort to get people who want to vote out to vote.

"I don't apologize for that."

But Orman, referring to the busing issue and to a recent leak of a party membership list, said it still stinks.

The list ended up with a polling firm that used it to conduct a survey that suggested Mar was way out in front and Orman was a no-hoper in fifth place — not the kind of poll he could use to rally his troops.

"That's old-school, old-style (politics)," said Orman, an energy minister when Don Getty was premier.

"We work hard to get to the last week before the first vote, and then everybody looks and says, 'You know what. That's the same old Conservatives.'"

Redford said the best candidate will win out, but added: "It's disappointing to see people who have a set of rules in front of them, and are aware of the rules, (but) are breaking the rules."

Horner suggested there's going to be controversy in any campaign, but his team is committed to bringing in supporters who truly are engaged in picking a new leader.

"If they need a ride (to vote), we'll give them a ride," he said. "(But) they bought a membership. We didn't give it to them.

"We use common sense and we follow the rules."