EDMONTON - Three unsuccessful candidates have lined up behind Gary Mar in the race to become Alberta's next premier, but the front-runner isn't claiming victory yet.
Mar, a health minister under former premier Ralph Klein, said Tuesday he is confident but still has work to do to become leader of the province's Progressive Conservatives.
And the two other remaining candidates agreed they're not going to make it an easy fight.
A defiant Doug Horner said he is staying in the race even though he has been privately encouraged by some other camps to step aside in favour of Mar.
The former deputy premier said he has had a long talk with the legislature members who support him.
"We've had some real good heart-to-hearts and soul-searching about what can we do and actually accomplish. And the unanimous vote was: let's move forward."
Stephen Carter, spokesman for the Alison Redford team, said the former justice minister has no intention of throwing in the towel. Her Edmonton campaign office has been inundated with requests for memberships and extra volunteers have been brought in, he said.
"This thing is not over by any stretch of the imagination."
Carter suggested the three candidates backing Mar are jumping on board what they think will be the winning team.
Doug Griffiths was the last of the losers to jump on Mar's wagon. The rural backbencher garnered the least amount of votes among the six candidates on Saturday's first ballot.
Griffiths said he would have endorsed Mar sooner, but he wanted to take some time with his family.
"Gary is probably one of the most conservative candidates left when it comes to fiscal values."
Despite some calls for Redford and Horner to bow out, Griffiths encouraged the pair to stay in the race to replace Premier Ed Stelmach.
"They're second and third on the ballot. I think they have a duty and responsibility to do what's best for the party," he said. "I think it's beneficial to Albertans and the party to still have those voices heard in the next round of debate."
Former finance minister Ted Morton and Rick Orman, a cabinet minister when Don Getty was premier, didn't make the cut either and announced Monday that they are supporting Mar.
A runoff vote between Mar, Redford and Horner will be held Oct. 1 in Edmonton.
Mar, who most recently was Alberta's envoy in Washington, D.C., would appear to have unstoppable momentum, but is warning his supporters not to take anything for granted. He has pointed out that voter turnout could be considerably higher the second time around and no one is sure where those votes could go.
"There could be tens of thousands of new memberships sold," he said. "I don't take it for a foregone conclusion. If there are lessons that you learn from the past, it is that there's only one poll that counts and that is the poll that's taken on Oct. 1."
Some party members have said they fear a repeat of the 2006 campaign when third-place candidate Stelmach came up the middle to win in a preferential second-round ballot.
Mar took 41 per cent of the votes Saturday. Redford took 19 per cent and Horner 14.5 per cent.
The Oct. 1 ballot includes a preferential component. Voters will list their first, second and third choices. To win, a candidate will have to receive 50 per cent, plus one, of the votes. If no one achieves that, the third-place finisher will be dropped and the second-preference votes cast on the eliminated candidate's ballots will be added to the totals of the two left standing.
Liberal Opposition Leader Raj Sherman said he doesn't expect any voting surprises and is 99 per cent sure Mar will win. He declared: "The leadership race is over."
Sherman said he was surprised Morton and Orman quickly joined Mar's team and questioned whether they were promised positions in a new cabinet in return for their support.
Orman is not currently a member of the legislature, but hasn't ruled out running again.
Horner echoed the suggestion but admitted he doesn't have any proof that deals were made. He said his office is getting a lot of angry phone calls from Conservative members who believe it to be the case.
"I think it's important that we show we have a clean race," Horner said. "I don't condone any deal-making and I haven't done any."
Mar said no promises were made.
NDP Leader Brian Mason called a news conference Tuesday in an effort to get ahead of what he believes will be a snap election call by Mar.
He said "it's clear" Mar will win the leadership and he's concerned that as premier Mar will introduce private health care. Mar has mulled during his campaign about more private delivery to fix an ailing public-health system.
Mar has also said he's not ruling out an early election.
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary