UPDATED: April 11, 2012 (see bottom of story for report from Highwood)

You might say today was a warm-up for Thursday’s leader’s debate. Both Alison Redford and Danielle Smith were scheduled for debate “dry-runs” in their home ridings.

Progressive Conservative Redford was courting voters in Calgary-Elbow at an event at Mount Royal University. The “Voting Game” format of “dating” the candidates was an easy one for Redford. A short list of predetermined questions were playfully lobbed at the candidates over the lunch hour, as students gathered in Wyckham House food court. The forum was organized by the Students’ Association and Redford received a warm welcome, garnering the most applause both at the beginning and at the end. Of course, she had the last word (by accident or?), given the final speaking slot on the closing remarks.

Wildrose candidate James Cole read mostly from a prepared script and didn’t seem to really connect with the crowd. A few of his jokes just didn’t play well. He strayed briefly from his notes to talk about property rights, the only time he seemed to be “winging it.” It is obviously an issue close to his heart (and pumping a lot of energy into the Wildrose campaign).

Alberta Party candidate Greg Clark scored the most points with his statements about both Redford’s PC’s and Smith’s Wildrose party. He wrapped up his remarks by attacking both conservative parties. He pointed out that the Tories had been in power since he was six months old–obviously too long since he’s a man in his 40’s. He also took a shot at the Wildrose saying they did not represent change since they were mostly comprised of former PC organizers and elected officials.

Evergreen Party candidate William Hamilton seemed very sincere but read almost completely from his notes. New Democrat Craig Coolahan was pretty relaxed and confident, although his campaign has been virtually non-existent in the riding. I’ve seen no lawn signs or doorknocking at all thus far. (I live in the riding and work from home). The Liberals’ newly-nominated candidate Beena Ashar was not in attendance, which was a missed opportunity.

Alison Redford started off a little shaky when asked about her perfect date (she and her husband rarely go on dates without their daughter, she says) and then quickly picked up steam, gaining confidence. She referred several times to the AOSTRA 2 announcement and defended her government’s record on several fronts. Just an hour prior to the event, the PC’s had announced $650 million in funding for post-secondary education, with funds earmarked for Mount Royal University.

She ended the forum by, what else, attacking the Wildrose on social issues (specifically, conscience rights) and got a good response from the crowd. Three women standing next to me were getting their lunch and didn’t hear most of the debate but yelled approval loudly when Redford criticized the Wildrose on this issue (as they waited in line for their pizza slices).

Tonight, Danielle Smith will be in Okotoks squaring off with candidates in Highwood. The debate is hosted by the Western Wheel and the Okotoks Chamber of Commerce. The PC candidate in the riding is an associate publisher at the Wheel so she’s not exactly walking into neutral territory.

I wouldn’t be surprised if debate organizers aren’t comprised almost completely of Tory supporters. Only questions submitted in advance will be addressed to the candidates. It’ll be interesting to see how newcomer John Barlow does against Smith. I’ll update you later this evening after the debate!

Full Flickr photo set here.

HIGHWOOD UPDATE:

It was quite a contrast at the election forum in the riding of Highwood last night.

About 600 people crammed into the Foothills Centennial Centre in the evening to hear from three of the four candidates nominated in Highwood. The crowd was spilling out into the hallway and there was a lot of booing and shouting throughout the evening.

The format for the debate was much more challenging than the lunch hour “dating game” flirtation at Mount Royal University with Redford. PC Candidate Barlow also didn’t have a multi-million dollar funding announcement just prior to the forum to gain favour with the crowd.

Initially, it was reported that only questions submitted in advance would be allowed, but the floor was opened up to questions submitted in writing and they were coming in fast and furious. Each candidate had only one minute per question, which proved to be a real test even for Smith, who was cut off frequently. In terms of debate preparation, this forum likely put her through the paces in a much more challenging way than Redford’s did.

PC supporters out in force

Barlow had strong support from the crowd, but he was hard-pressed to defend the PC record on many issues. He appeared to contradict his government’s position on some issues, had some wildly overstated numbers relating to Smith’s spending promises and generally, came out swinging for most of the latter part of the debate. Smith got a lot of applause for her comments on accountability and on the issues of concern to many landowners–the various bills passed recently giving Cabinet extraordinary powers of decision-making (often labelled as “property rights” by both sides in the debate to try and polarize the issue).

Elephant in the room

Smith finally clarified her personal position, saying she was pro-choice and in favour of gay marriage. Other members of her party may not be in agreement with her position, though.

The Tories don’t exactly have the best record on social issues themselves (often forgotten in the hysteria of late, see this related blog post). The question is whether either Smith or Redford can be trusted to keep their right wing at bay on these sticky issues. One of the first things Redford did as Premier was extend an olive branch to Ted Morton by making him Energy Minister, one of the most powerful positions in Cabinet. Morton is one of the most conservative members of the PC caucus and has denied gay marriage is a right.

Local boy does good

Most surprising and refreshing was the foil provided by Alberta Liberal candidate Keegan Gibson, a university student who grew up in the area (the NDP candidate did not attend). Gibson lightened up the forum by admitting that a month ago, he never would’ve believed he’d be running for MLA and went on to say that he hadn’t always voted Liberal. He had the best quote of the evening in his closing remarks when he said he believed in the “power of an idea, rather than the idea of power.” He received a fair amount of applause and appreciative handshakes at the end of the evening.

The debate ended with both Smith and Barlow receiving a strong show of support from the crowd for their closing remarks. It was a good warm-up for Smith prior to the Thursday debate.

For more background reading on the Highwood riding, see this post.

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