EDMONTON - Premier Ed Stelmach says he's ready to trade elbow shots in a fight against a new conservative rival that polls suggest is threatening Alberta's 40-year Tory dynasty.
Until now, the premier has avoided any public head-butting with the Wildrose Alliance and leader Danielle Smith - even though a handful of polls since last fall have indicated the new party is gaining ground or even ahead of Stelmach's Progressive Conservatives.
But in an interview this week with The Canadian Press, Stelmach was talking like a hockey tough guy spoiling for a fight.
"I've got just as sharp elbows as anybody else and when I go into a corner, I know I'm going to come out the winner," he said.
"As they say in rural Alberta, sooner or later the horse comes to the water. That is when Albertans are going to say, 'OK, you tell me what you're going to do."'
The premier said the Wildrose has been taking shots at him while drawing little scrutiny from voters on key policy issues.
"Tell me how you're going to deal with the pressures in health? How are you going to deal with infrastructure?"
Over the last week, Stelmach and his ministers have been fanning out to hold meetings and chat with people in every corner of the province. He said he wants to find out from Albertans if the government's priorities mesh with the public's.
Stelmach has begun selling his Conservatives, who hold 68 of 83 seats, as the proven brand as opposed to the Wildrose, which has only three members of the legislature and a leader who doesn't have a seat in the assembly.
Smith said Stelmach's comments are the first real political challenge from the Tories she has seen since she became party leader last fall.
"Their first strategy was to ignore us and pretend they didn't know our name. If they say they've got their elbows up, let's see it," she said in an interview.
"This is the reason why they're on a ministerial listening tour, because they've stopped listening to Albertans, and I think that they're going to get an ear full when they're out in the town hall meetings."
Smith said it's ridiculous that Stelmach and his ministers are still casting about over key policy issues.
"We've got many cabinet ministers who've been there since 1993 and ... they haven't figured out by this time what the priorities of Albertans are? This is the reason why they're in such trouble."
Political analyst David Taras said Stelmach is taking a major political risk given that the next election isn't until 2012.
"You want to pick your moments. You want to pick your corners," said Taras, a communications professor at the University of Calgary. "It's always dangerous to go in against an opponent two years before an election because you elevate them."
He said Stelmach's efforts to shore up his party's support will depend largely on how quickly Alberta recovers from the recession.
"The Hail Mary pass is the economy and hoping that turns around and everything will be forgiven. That's the great gamble," he said. "If Alberta rebounds fairly quickly, many Albertans will likely be saying, 'Ed's the guy who brought us through the storm.'
"But if there isn't a quick recovery and we do have prolonged unemployment, and gas prices are still very low, and the government is cutting back, then all of those problems are going to be at his door."
Taras said the Tories will have to battle any movement toward change among Alberta voters.
"There's a buzz around Wildrose and Danielle Smith and it appears many voters have made a judgment about Stelmach. Once people have made up their mind that he can't handle the job, then it's very hard to undo that judgment.
"Right now, I think people are parking their votes with the Wildrose. It's not their last decision. But the lustre can come off the Wildrose very, very easily. It wouldn't take much."