09/30/2011 01:38 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

Alberta Tory leadership candidates put pedal to the metal in race to be premier

CALGARY - The front-runner in the race to become Alberta's next premier was forced again Friday to publicly defend an issue that has become his Achilles heel in the dying days of the campaign.

Gary Mar told a Calgary radio talk show that he didn't renege on a promise to forgo a $478,000 transition allowance when he left politics in 2007 to become Alberta's envoy to Washington.

"The reason I took it was because it was exactly the same deal every MLA has when they end their employment as an MLA," said Mar in response to a question from a caller.

"I did say I would defer my transitional allowance, which I did, and then at a later point I did accept it — which is what I was able to do pursuant to my contract of employment."

The allowance issue had lain dormant for much of the eight-month leadership campaign, but took centre stage Wednesday when Mar was asked about it during a provincewide TV debate.

He made the same comments then, but it opened the door for his two rivals, Doug Horner and Alison Redford, to pounce on it and paint it as a larger issue of trust.

"I take issue with whether or not any other MLA might have (taken the allowance)," Redford told 250,000 viewers. "If I said I wasn't going to do it, then I wouldn't have done it."

Horner turned to face Mar directly: "I think, Gary, the issue is you made a commitment to Albertans that you weren't going to do something. And the question is, 'Did you or did you not follow through on that commitment?'"

The money, and Mar's botched handling of a contract for a former staffer seven years ago, have been the two issues blotting an otherwise slickly run and so far successful campaign for the Progressive Conservative leadership.

The staffer, Mar confidante Kelley Charlebois, received almost $400,000 in consulting contracts from Mar's health department after leaving as his right-hand man in 2001. The auditor general found the contracts broke tendering rules and suggested there was no evidence of any work being done. Mar apologized at the time and has said repeatedly during the campaign that he learned from the mistake.

Mar was dubbed the front-runner when he joined the race in March.He has the support of well over half the Progressive Conservative caucus. He leveraged that support with a provincewide bus tour and a social media campaign to capture 41 per cent of the vote in the first round of party balloting on Sept. 17.

The figure was short the 50 per cent plus one majority needed for victory, but momentum has been on Mar's side. The three candidates who dropped off the first ballot — Rick Orman, Doug Griffiths and Ted Morton — have since thrown their support behind Mar and are encouraging the thousands of people who voted for them to do the same.

Mar collected 24,195 votes in the first round, more than double the totals of second-place Redford (11,127) and third-place Horner (8,635)

The 49-year-old Calgary-born lawyer won every Edmonton riding and dominated in south and central Alberta. He even made inroads in some northern ridings, where Horner received the lion's share of the votes.

In Calgary, the base of much of Redford's support, Mar was still No. 1. He captured two-thirds of the 23 ridings along with the advance poll. He took 7,082 votes — 753 more than Redford.

But while the odds are on Mar's side, history is not.

The party's preferential balloting has seen a runner-up come out on top in the last two leadership contests.

In 1992, Ralph Klein finished second to Nancy Betkowski on the first ballot but she didn't get the required majority. Klein stormed back with a renewed vote blitz to win the second round and become premier.

In 2006, front-runner Jim Dinning also failed to win the first round. Preferential balloting kicked in on the second vote when the three remaining candidates — Dinning, Morton and Ed Stelmach — each failed again to get a majority.

That meant the second-place choice of voters became crucial. Morton, who had finished third, dropped off the ticket and his votes were redistributed accordingly to the other two candidates. Stelmach won.

Horner and Redford, like Mar, are gunning for a clear win when results are announced at a north Edmonton convention centre Saturday night, but know that if Mar doesn't get his majority, the preferential ballot makes it anyone's race.

Horner said he's got the momentum.

"We've had a number of supporters from other camps that are not in the race anymore come to us, and that has reinvigorated ... the Calgary team and the phones have been ringing pretty steady," he said in an interview.

"If we get a full turnout of our support, I think we're going to be in a very good position. And because of the preferential ballot system, second is a good place to be."

Calgary was a wasteland for Horner in the first round. He collected just 320 votes.

Elsewhere, it was feast or famine. Fellow members of the legislature such as Ray Danyluk, Ken Kowalski, Jeff Johnson and Luke Ouellette delivered votes to him by the bushel. The 14 ridings that he won represented more than half his vote total for the whole province.

Alison Redford's campaign has been a mix of tenacity and scorched earth.

She has run mainly against the record of her former boss Stelmach. She has said she'll restore more than $100 million in slashed education funding and has promised a full inquiry into allegations doctors were coerced into keeping silent over problems in health care.

The 46-year-old Calgarian has scant support from her fellow government members, but used social media to spread the message and finished second on the first ballot. Her support outside Calgary, however, was weak.

Redford's mother died suddenly in hospital earlier this week, but Redford still took part in the televised debate a day later. She gained accolades for forcefully and confidently delivering her message.

She became emotional Friday when she addressed 50 cheering volunteers at her Calgary campaign office. She told them she wanted to make sure they were as proud of her as she was of them.

"I am very confident, I have to say, and I am a pretty realistic person," she said. "We are going to be proud of what we have accomplished at the end of this."

The policy positions among the three are not radically different. All promise to listen more to Albertans and to review contentious land-use and power line legislation that critics say gives too much arbitrary power to cabinet.

Mar has promised to explore private options to improve public health care, while Horner and Redford say long wait lists and substandard service can be fixed from within.

Political scientists Peter McCormick said despite any renewed support for Horner or Redford, he still likes Mar's chances.

"Mar has just out-organized the others," said McCormick of the University of Lethbridge.

"He has just too big a lead."

— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton