None of the three contendersare poised to take a majority in the race to replace Ralph Klein as leader of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives Saturday, likely leaving officials to drop a candidate from the ballot and tally their supporters' second choice.

Tens of thousands of Albertans cast ballots Saturday, with organizers expecting upward of 150,000 people to turn out at the polls, and some polling stations even running out of blank Conservative memberships.

If none of the three candidates onthe preferential ballot receive a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes will be dropped and the second-choice votes on his ballots will be transferred to the remaining two and a winner will be declared.

Dinningtakes the lead

The results poured in to an airplane hanger north of Edmonton's downtown, where party brass mixed with campaign supporters sporting the T-shirts of their favourite candidates.

Jim Dinning, a former provincial treasurer who has been making his way in the corporate world since leaving politics a decade ago, took the lead by 11:30 p.m. local time Saturday.

Dinning had44,562 votes, or40 per cent of the total, with73 of 83 constituencies reporting.

Ed Stelmach, a former intergovernmental affairs minister from the riding of Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, placed a close second with32 per cent.

Coming in third with 28 per cent was Ted Morton, a southern Alberta backbencher who was policy director for the Canadian Alliance party.

Two-month race

The race for the leadership of Canada's richest province was officially on for two months.

Eight initial leadership hopefuls crossed the province and squared off in at least a dozen forums and debates.

In the first round of balloting on Nov. 25, about 97,000 Albertans cast a vote.

Dinning led the way out of eight contenders with 29,470 votes, followed by Morton with 25,614 and Stelmach with 14,967.

Five candidates were dropped from the race.

Because no person received enough support for a clear victory, a second vote with a preferential ballot was held Saturday to determine a winner. Any Alberta resident 16 or older could cast a ballot with a $5 party membership.

Three contenders

Dinning, long seen as the front-runner in the race,is best known politically for implementing the painful deficit-slaying budget cuts that became a hallmark of the "Klein Revolution."

Dinning has promised to put at least 30 per cent of natural resource revenue into the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, double arts funding to $40 million annually, improve health care, and protect Alberta's water supply.

Stelmach, first elected as an MLA in 1993,lacked the campaign war chest and headline-grabbing quotes of his rivals. But hemade up for it with a down-home appeal to honour, integrity and common sense that garnered supporters on both sides of the rural-urban divide.

Stelmach wants to expand colleges, deliver aid to farmers while the bio-industry is established, pursue a policy of no government interference in the oilsands development, and establish a registry for lobbyists.

Morton, a legislative rookie, has been the MLA for Foothills-Rockyview since 2004.

A former professor at the University of Calgary, he was also a "senator-in-waiting," a title he won in Alberta's second-ever senate election in 1998.

Mortonran on a platform that included opposing any special treatment for Quebec from Ottawa.

He also wants to allow private insurance and private clinics to offer health-care services, and has railed against Alberta's $14-billion contribution to the federal equalization program, a program which helps poorer provinces.

With files from the Canadian Press