The first of five United Conservative Party leadership debates at the Bella Concert Theatre at Mount Royal University in Calgary last Tuesday demonstrated the raw power of conservative unification.
It was also a detailed look at the choices the UCP faces to decide its brand of conservatism.
There is a place in public life for righteous anger, however at the UPC debate the anger was anger that the NDP won the 2015 election.
Why they are still frothing over the defeat is a mystery because unification takes them way past that.
The UCP will have the power of upwards of 200,000 members when it selects its leader by voting online or on the phone from 9 a.m. Oct. 26 to 5 p.m. Oct. 28, 2017.
Its supporters have contributed at least $2 million to the candidates.
It’s Jason Kenney’s leadership to lose. Backed by big dollars raised by the Alberta Advantage Fund, Kenney has the membership numbers to win and the machine to deliver his vote.
That was evident in the well-organized swarm of volunteers in blue Kenney T-shirts welcoming all comers to the debate and adjourning to an after-party at an Irish pub near the university.
Brian Jean is the nice guy who is finishing second.
Jean’s latest setback is a $337,000 UCP caucus deficit. He is responsible for the Wildrose Party’s $322,000 share of the shortfall.
Jim Cunningham, who teaches journalism at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, said that Jean’s speaking style at the debate was that of a litigator addressing a judge. Not surprising, since in private life Jean was a litigator, but it’s a style that didn’t warm up the debate audience.
The unexpected note of the night was the stellar contribution by Doug Schweitzer. He is the youngest contender at 38 years of age, and was the most engaging debater.
Schweitzer is the most moderate in terms of policy and a good listener, and would win a seat in Calgary with a well-supported and staffed campaign with the assistance of the Kenney machine.
He is the conciliatory face of conservatism in Alberta, and also a tough guy who specializes as as lawyer in the punishing business of restructuring troubled companies.
Schweitzer is the conservative leader who could undercut Premier Rachel Notley’s hold on the moderates in the millennial and gen-z age group.
If Kenney, the presumptive winner, makes room in his inner circle for Schweitzer, Schweitzer would find the UCP’s opportunity to deal with the debate’s third rail, LGBTQ issues.
The fourth candidate, Jeff Callaway, former president of the Wildrose party, is out of his depth in the debates and the leadership race.
Callaway is the attack dog against Brian Jean, but when he attacked Jean during the debate, he was roundly booed by the audience.
Alberta’s next general election is two years into the future, so there is time to determine the political heart and soul of the UCP.
Central Alberta will get its opportunity to listen to candidates’ ideas in Red Deer on Oct. 3.
– Frank Dabbs is a veteran political and business journalist, author of four books, editor of several more and is working this autumn on the history of Trimac Transportation and the McCaig family of Calgary.