EDMONTON — With just days to go in the Alberta election campaign, the battle is on for undecided voters between— depending on whom you talk to— the corporate muppets and the union puppets.
And everyone has set their phasers to fear.
As NDP Leader Rachel Notley enjoys a popularity bump coming off Thursday’s debate, Premier Jim Prentice and his Progressive Conservatives have switched from attacking the Opposition Wildrose to painting the New Democrats as the party that will turn Alberta into a socialist dystopia.
During the debate, Prentice warned viewers Notley takes direction from "union bosses."
The weekend saw conservatives try to paint Notley as anti−pipeline for suggesting the controversial Northern Gateway project through B.C. isn’t likely to succeed in the face of stiff opposition along the route.
It’s a reversal of the 2012 Alberta election that saw the Tories under Alison Redford woo progressive fence−sitters by stoking fears that the Wildrose was intolerant towards minorities and didn’t believe in climate change.
"This is to appeal to conservatives to keep away the red scare," says Duane Bratt, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary. "(The Tories) had been dealing with Notley with gloved hands. They have switched strategies mid−campaign. Now it is an NDP−PC battle."
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The election was supposed to be a coronation for Prentice and his Tories, who have been running Alberta for more than four decades. But polls have put his party, the NDP and the Wildrose together in a three−way fight with about one in five voters still undecided.
Political observers say with the Tories strong in Calgary and the NDP showing well in Edmonton, Prentice will focus on winning over soft−core Wildrose supporters in Calgary and rural areas to gain the 44 seats needed for a majority on May 5.
Notley has already said she will spend much of the rest of the campaign in Calgary given that she needs a large breakthrough there to win government.
Notley has sought to portray Prentice, a former bank executive, as a boardroom mouthpiece for refusing to hike corporate taxes or oil royalties in his budget, while boosting taxes for virtually everyone else.
Political analyst Bob Murray says Prentice’s campaign has been plagued by gaffes, particularly his rollback on the reductions to the charitable tax credit — a plank in his supposedly ironclad budget that was brought down just days before the vote was called.
"Jim Prentice’s flip flop ... on the charitable tax credit showed that Jim Prentice is or could be willing to negotiate away principles that he was trying to stand for in order to win government," says Murray, the vice-president of research for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
The Tories have tried to portray Prentice on the campaign trail as an Everyman, in a suit jacket but no tie, having a coffee and flipping pancakes.
Murray thinks it’s time to get back to the buttoned−down Prentice.
"It’s not about holding kittens. It’s about who do you actually want managing the economy and running the government," says Murray.
But Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist with MacEwan University in Edmonton, disagrees.
"He needs to establish himself not as elitist, out−of−touch guy but somebody that can connect to the ordinary concerns of your typical Albertan," says Mensah.
Bratt, Murray, and Mensah agree Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, with his one−track debate message that his party won’t raise taxes, has failed to establish himself as a leader with a broad outlook and widespread appeal.
But by Jean making clear he won’t join any coalition that raises taxes, Murray says he has sent a broader message on his character.
"It reassured people that he is not willing to negotiate principles away for power."