If the election has prompted you to look in on Alberta politics for the first time in a while, the following overview should give you the background you need to keep score at home.
Alison Redford and the PCs
Redford stunned everyone with her come-from-behind win in last Fall's PC leadership race, despite trailing Gary Marr 41% to 19% after the first round of voting. That leadership contest was triggered by Ed Stelmach's surprise resignation, when the Premier was gently pushed aside over concerns about his electability - Stelmach you'll recall, was only able to win 72 of 83 seats in his first election as party leader in 2008.
Redford is seen as being squarely on the left of the PC Party, and was once called a "feminist lawyer" by Rob Anders. her leadership campaign focused on health care and education, targeting female voters. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Alberta Liberals have taken a hit in the polls since Redford's ascension to power.
Redford has remained popular since winning the leadership, but has proven to be one of the least exciting Premier's in the province's history. Not so much in terms of personality (no one could match her predecessor there), but in terms of content. She kind of kept her fixed election date promise, by giving herself a three month election window. She kind of kept her promise to hold an independent judicial inquiry into the health care system, but limited the mandate. Her budget was popular, but painfully cautious. There have been a few missteps and scandlettes, but even they have been boring (Gary Mar's post-leadership fundraising letter mentioned his position as ambassador...zzzzzz....).
She might as well be running on a slogan of "Meh. Why not?".
Election Strategy: The PCs have used a tagline of "Danielle Smith: Not Worth the Risk" in early attack ads, promoting the stability offered by the PCs - after all, what's more stable than a 40 year old government?
This stalking horse also serves to frame the election as a Wildrose-PC showdown, in a bid to scare "Redford Liberals" into voting PC and making disgruntled conservatives think twice about casting a protest vote for the Wildrose. Expect reports aplenty of "anonymous Conservatives" worried about a Wildrose victory - even if they're comfortably ahead in the polls.
Policy: I wouldn't hold my breath expecting anything bold from Redford. No new taxes, a little bit of money for Health Care, a little bit of money for feel good programs, and a little bit of...hey look over there at the Wildrose Party!
Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Party
Danielle Smith was the golden girl of Alberta politics for a two year stretch, starting in the summer of 2009. She was the subject of countless "hey, let's see if anything interesting is happening in Alberta" political profiles by the national press, and the local media treated her like she walked on water. Then Alison Redford came along and now the only time the media talks about Smith is when they're chuckling over her bus.
Even if Smith can't lead the Wildrose Party to the promised land, the mere fact that we're talking about this possibility is quite the accomplishment. Dozens of right wing parties have come and gone in Alberta over the years, but none have ever moved beyond fringe status. While some of the Wildrose's success is no doubt due to the shortcomings of the PCs, I suspect at least half their votes are driven by Smith herself.
Strategy: The biggest asset the Wildrose Party has is Danielle Smith. If I were running the campaign, I'd make the election all about her and use a lot of flowery language about "change" and the "potential of Alberta". Instead, my suspicion is campaign manager Tom Flanagan is planing a nasty campaign which will be all about Alison Redford. I recognize there's a need to define your opponent, but I think there's a greater need to define Smith as something more than an angry outsider.
That said, if you're going to attack Redford, the best issue to go at her on is probably the revelation that PC MLAs were paid thousands to sit on a government committee which never met. It's a simple message anyone can understand, and it speaks to government entitlement and waste - a good wedge issue for the Wildrosers.
Just don't go overboard on it. Like I said - the focus should be on Danielle.
Policy: Think of the early Reform Party - a lot of talk about reducing spending, a splash of democratic reform, and avoid talking about social issues as much as possible. Given Alberta's flirtations with private health care over the years, it will be interesting to see if Smith dares go down that road. Either way, Health Care will be a dicey issue for her, since it's nearly impossible for the Wildrose Party to meet its targeted spending cuts without axing something from the Health Care budget.
Raj Sherman and the Alberta Liberal Party
The PCs are led by a woman many have accused of being a "closet Liberal". The Liberals? They have a former PC in charge.
Sherman's story is an odd one. After being elected as a PC in 2008 and named Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Health, Sherman was fired in 2010 after sending off a late night e-mail to his entire address book, blasting Ed Stelmach's performance on the Health Care file. Since then, he has raised shocking claims about inefficiency, intimidation, and corruption in the Health system. Depending on who you ask, he's either a Health Care crusader or a crazy person.
Strategy: If the election gets framed as a Smith/Redford showdown, the Liberals are going to get squeezed down to a handful of ridings. And truth be told, there's probably not much they can do to prevent that at this point.
My advice would be to make the election all about Health Care - it's the one area where Sherman and the ALP have credibility and it's an important issue to voters. The Liberals may be fighting for media attention this campaign so they need to be focused, and Health Care is the smartest issue for them to be talking about.
Although they've now signed a deal, it likely helps that the Alberta Medical Association spent much of the past month running newspaper ads criticizing Redford's Health Care record.
Policy: The Liberals have released a relatively bold platform, funded by a proposed tax increase on the richest Albertans and businesses. Among their promises is a move towards free tuition, which should help the party hold their University ridings.
Brian Mason and the NDP
The NDP passed the Liberals federally in Alberta in 2008, and beat them by a 2:1 ratio there in 2011. Those results, coupled with positive polling numbers lead many to believe the NDP can vault ahead of the provincial Grits this campaign.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mason is the only leader back from the 2008 election. Despite the mustache, no one will mistake him for Jack Layton, but Mason is an underrated politician, capable of staying on message and delivering a good sound byte.
Strategy: NDP support remains concentrated in Edmonton, so that's where they'll spend the bulk of their time. Their message will likely be from the traditional NDP "kitchen table" cookbook.
Policy: With the Alberta Green Party desanctioned, the NDP have "gone green", right down to the colour palette on their website. Their four priorities include a "green energy plan" and "full value royalties", so they aren't afraid to go after big oil.
Glen Taylor and the Alberta Party
A year ago, the Alberta Party was making waves inside the political bubble - their messaging was solid, many of their key organizers had tasty victory with the Nenshi campaign, and they'd lured over ex-Liberal MLA Dave Taylor. However, like most internet fads, this one has faded, never really catching on with the public.
The Alberta Party will run around 30-40 candidates, with Taylor their only realistic hope (Glen that is, Dave isn't running). I'd put the over/under on their province-wide support at around 2%.
Strategy: Getting into the debates would be a huge boost for the Alberta Party, but this seems unlikely. Without that exposure, they'll need to rely on their strong online presence to get their message out.
Policy: They're big on #listening. You can check out their platform here.