In a debate for the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential primaries, organizers went big and gaudy by positioning Ronald Reagan’s old Air Force One jet as a backdrop to the candidates and their lecterns.

In a province that no longer has executive aircraft for its leader, United Conservatives offered a low-budget version for their first leadership debate. In a hangar by the Medicine Hat airport, the would-be premiers stood in front of a helicopter.

Brian Jean was near the tail, Rebecca Schulz by the 4-H Club sponsor logo. Todd Loewen was at the nose. Danielle Smith stood closest to the cockpit. 

Hangars aren’t ideally ventilated for large political gatherings, the fans blowing far overhead. “It’s getting hot in here,” the moderator quipped after one exchange, but he was only partly talking in metaphor.

Travis Toews could be spotted tugging at his collar, while Jean’s forehead showed a bead or two of sweat. Smith had some balmy glistening on her face, but mostly appeared to stay cool.

Out in front

If it wasn’t clear until now, after weeks of commentary, the forum’s attacks made even more apparent that Smith is the race’s front-runner.

The former Wildrose Party leader and radio host took repeated blows for two big targets she has painted on her own back: the legally questionable Alberta Sovereignty Act to permit Albertans to avoid enforcing some federal laws, and her recent comments about how cancer, as long as it doesn’t reach Stage 4, is “completely within your control.”

An experienced communicator and politician — and Smith is both — would naturally anticipate that she’d have to defend this explosive utterance. She insisted it was a “misunderstanding,” and what she was trying to say, “albeit awkwardly,” is that early detection of cancer is vital.

But to many medical practitioners, cancer survivors and political rivals alike, Smith sure as heck sounded like she was doing some combination of blaming the patients and pitching naturopathy and other alternative heath-care options as early cancer treatments.

Several opponents urged her to consider the impact her words have, and the demands she apologize were led by Jean, whose son died of cancer seven years ago. Smith incorrectly insisted that she had apologized, repeated that she was misunderstood, and then said she was sorry — for Jean’s loss of his child. (Pressed by reporters afterwards, she did say she apologizes to anyone hurt by her remarks, which were misunderstood.)

Danielle Smith, centre, makes a comment as Todd Loewen, left, and Rajan Sawhney listen during the UCP leadership candidate’s debate in Medicine Hat, Alta. Her opponents’ attacks on Smith made it apparent that she is the race’s front-runner. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The understanding of nearly all of Smith’s fellow candidates is that her sovereignty act, a Smith government’s top priority, was a fairy tale she was selling to supporters, with its claims Alberta can magically avoid federal law — and one that would create legal chaos and a more toxic federal-provincial situation that would scare off investors. 

Rajan Sawhney, the former transportation minister, took nearly every chance she could to poke at the danger of Smith’s marquee promise, and the claims that it would solve problems ranging from environmental pressures on the oil sector to federal COVID rules and prosecution of the freedom convoy leaders. 

“It’s seductive, it draws you in, but it is an illusion. And my question is: what are you going to do when you can’t deliver what you’re trying to sell?” Sawhney asked. (Candidates who become memorable for being the front-runner’s chief debate critic, history shows, do not tend to later be remembered for overtaking the front-runner.)

Smith tried to sidestep all this with an impassioned defense of sovereignty — including a citation of the Wikipedia entry on sovereignty — insisting that Ottawa’s policies had already brought Alberta into chaos and a constitutional crisis. She also insisted that Quebec already gets to do exactly what she wants Alberta to do, claiming that province’s assembly declared it would not enforce the Liberal government’s anti-convoy Emergencies Act in the province. (In reality, its legislature passed what leaders admitted was a non-binding motion that asked that Ottawa not impose the drastic measure in Quebec.)

The secondary target

Travis Toews was the only other candidate that took blows, taking repeated criticism for various decisions the Kenney cabinet made on COVID lockdowns and public sector compensation. Though he’s been low-key thus far for a candidate who’s the favourite of the UCP caucus and the party establishment, and is not renowned as Mr. Charisma, he proved himself steadfast at times, whether in resolute defence of his tenure in cabinet or in his barbs against Smith and the other more insurgent candidates, Jean and Loewen.

If Jean is trying to eat into the Smith’s support among rural members and the anti-Jason Kenney crowd, it’s unclear how much of that he accomplished Wednesday in Medicine Hat. He kept referring to his desire to make Alberta the “happiest” province in Canada, and his emphatic style included him, at one point, talking about how some people were so angry they were “going to get their guns out.” (Uh oh?)

Loewen was the only one who didn’t attack Smith, not seemingly fussed at all about her cancer comments or “sovereignty” push. The independent MLA from Valleyview could wind up serving as a big helper for Smith, with many of the rural northern Alberta members he enlists switching to her as a second choice on the ranked leadership ballot.

Rebecca Schulz, who may have squandered the bump she got with the endorsement of former federal Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose, repeatedly tried to take credit for being the first candidate to come forward with policies on various matters (Nobody tends to remember such things when marking a ballot). The seventh candidate, Leela Aheer, tried to strike a mostly positive tone throughout; her criticism of Smith was confined to arguing that the Constitution already defines what is provincial or federal jurisdiction and that renders the “sovereignty act” idea mostly redundant.

Travis Toews, centre, makes a comment as Leela Aheer, left, and Brian Jean listen during the UCP leadership candidate’s debate. Toews heard repeated criticism during the debate for various decisions the Kenney cabinet made on COVID lockdowns and public sector compensation. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The 300-some attendees were a mostly quiet bunch, but they did notably erupt in applause a few times. The first was when Smith said Alberta Health gave decision-makers a “snow job” by pushing vaccine passports, mask mandates for kids and firm crackdowns on COVID restriction scofflaws. Another big crowd cheer came when Smith, deflecting from demands she say sorry for her inflammatory cancer remarks, demanded to know why cabinet ministers didn’t apologize for COVID “lockdowns.”

Alberta’s vaccine mandates and COVID restrictions tended to poll well among the Alberta public, even if the UCP base seems to have nothing but misgivings about them. Declaring that cancer is “controllable” may have bruised Smith’s reputation among the general public, but the governing party’s supporters may give her a pass on this one. 

In the United States, land of the free and home of Air Force One, voters were willing to forgive a Republican candidate who said all manner of things hitherto perceived as career-ending, and pitched the bombastically-fanciful idea to make Mexico pay for a wall he wanted to build.

In Alberta, there’s another debate in late August, not long after the Aug. 12 deadline to become a UCP member and eligible to vote in October’s contest. It’s not clear the landscape will have shifted by then, or whether it moved much at all on Wednesday.