Four candidates vying to lead new Alberta party to face off in first debate

CALGARY — Four men vying for the leadership of Alberta’s new United Conservative Party are to take part in their first debate tonight in Calgary.

Jason Kenney, Brian Jean, Doug Schweitzer and Jeff Callaway will be looking to persuade party members that they have what it takes to topple Rachel Notley’s majority NDP government in the next election.

There will be four more debates — in Edmonton, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Lethbridge — before party members pick a leader next month.

The party was formed when the Opposition Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties merged in the summer.

Lori Williams, a Mount Royal University political scientist, said she’s expecting Kenney, a former federal cabinet minister who spearheaded the unity drive, to be pressed on where he stands on social issues such as LGBTQ rights.

“And it’s going to have to get down to specifics,” Williams said. “Jason Kenney’s going to be in real trouble if he doesn’t start answering questions about these. He’s going to get hammered every debate if he doesn’t.”

Williams said she’ll be watching to see whether Kenney focuses his attacks on Jean, the former Wildrose leader.

If that happens, it likely means Kenney sees Jean as the front-runner.

“If Jason Kenney goes after Brian Jean in a big way, that’s going to be a pretty good indication that their internal polls are reflecting what we’re seeing in the public polls — that he’s worried that he’s behind and that he needs to make some ground.”

The last time Jean took part in a televised debate was in the leadup to the 2015 provincial election and his performance was criticized as wooden and robotic.

Calgary pollster Janet Brown said Jean was new to the leadership then and she’s expecting a better showing this time.

“I don’t think he’s ever going to turn into a really slick politician or anything, but I won’t be surprised if he improved since that 2015 debate,” she said.

Kenney can command a room better and is a much more skilled orator, said Brown.

“But Brian Jean seems to be winning the likability race.”

The debate will be a chance for Schweitzer and Callaway to build more name recognition.

Williams said Schweitzer, a longtime conservative strategist, has successfully set himself apart as the most progressive candidate on social issues.

Brown said she’s expecting Callaway, former president of the Wildrose party, to focus his attacks on Jean and to perhaps raise some of his more unique policy ideas such as shipping Alberta oil to world markets through a Hudson Bay port in Churchill, Man.

Williams suggested the candidates shouldn’t focus too much on vilifying the NDP in the debate.

“No government in waiting can be successful if all they’re doing is just criticizing what the people there now are doing,” she said.

“They’ve got to offer a credible, appealing alternative.”

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