09/17/2011 10:44 EDT | Updated 11/17/2011 05:12 EST

Gary Mar Leads Alberta PC Leadership Race


CALGARY - Former cabinet minister Gary Mar was the top choice of Alberta Progressive Conservatives as the province's next premier, but he didn't get enough votes to win outright and there will be a run-off vote in two weeks.

And the larger story emerging from Saturday night might be who didn't vote, rather than who did.

Fewer than 60,000 members cast ballots Saturday, less than two thirds of the 97,690 who voted in the first round of the 2006 contest that put Ed Stelmach in the premier's chair in place of Ralph Klein.

Mar, a former health minister in Klein's government, ended up with nearly 41 per cent of the first-ballot votes. He was followed by former justice minister Alison Redford at nearly 19 per cent and former deputy premier Doug Horner at just over 14 per cent.

Because no one reached a majority, the top three move on to a final round of voting on Oct. 1.

Former finance minister Ted Morton, Don Getty-era cabinet minister Rick Orman, and backbencher Doug Griffiths didn't get enough votes and were eliminated.

"We are very, very close to doing the job, finishing the job and winning," Mar said. "My job is very clear over the next two weeks. I've got to get out there and sell more memberships, and our team is going to do that.

"Obviously there will be people that we will be talking with over the next few hours to look for their help in joining our team, which we think is very, very close to winning."

While refusing to say who he would support on the second ballot, Griffiths raised concerns about the turnout.

"It's incredibly low compared to other times in the PC party history which I think is very interesting and that's probably the thing that I guess probably concerns me the most," he said.

"Low voter turnout usually means apathy and apathy doesn't exactly bode well when you're choosing the next premier of the province so I think the party needs to step back and ask a lot of serious questions about why that happened with lower voter turnout."

The vote comes at a crucial time for the Tories. They have won 11 consecutive majority governments and have been in charge in Alberta for 40 years, but slid back under Stelmach and now face a challenge from the right-of-centre Wildrose Party.

Mar conceded the party has been struggling.

"The voter turnout was low, but that wasn't a surprise because as we travelled throughout the province we knew there were issues with respect to support for the party so the numbers do not surprise me but it tells us that we've got a lot of work to do to be able to build up support for our Progressive Conservative Party."

Party president Bill Smith, however, dismissed turnout concerns noting that core supporters in the rural regions are in the middle of harvest season.

"It's hard to get votes out in the summer," said Smith. "A lot of our agricultural friends are doing what they need to do to make their living."

Observers and polls suggested that Mar was the front runner heading into Saturday, but the popular belief was that he didn't have enough support to avoid a second ballot.

Mar 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 lead a government that is a paragon of transparency.

It was a relatively quiet campaign of editorial boards, pancake breakfasts and industry meet-and-greets.

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

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

Redford welcomed her spot in the run-off vote.

"They said they want change and this is a signal that we can deliver that on a second ballot," she said.

"People are starting to believe it and we have two more weeks to convince people that what we can do right now is set a changing direction for this province that allows us to exceed our wildest expectations."

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 flying elsewhere to get surgery or to perform it.

Redford jumped on Mar with both feet, trying to find the wedge issue that would bring lukewarm supporters from his camp over to hers. Fiddle with the silo, she warned, and before you know it you've sold the farm.

Horner, a 50-year-old former businessman, represents the Edmonton-area constituency of Spruce Grove-Sturgeon-St. Albert in the legislature. His family political pedigree dates back three generations. During the campaign, he urged Albertans to dream big and to put more money into research and innovation funds to grow and diversify the province.

"The whole evening we were at third or second. I think we have a job to do," Horner said. "The team's going to rally and we're going to get the job done."