Wildrose 'not our enemies,' Kenney says in PC leadership pitch

The convention to pick the next, and possibly last, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta kicked off Friday with a candidates’ rally at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary.

Candidates make their pitches to delegates in Calgary on the eve of the PC leadership vote

Jason Kenney is widely believed to be the frontrunner in the race to become Alberta's new Progressive Conservative leader. (CBC)

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jason Kenney urged delegates at the party's convention in Calgary not to see the Wildrose as the enemy and to unite under a single conservative party. 

"It is time to park the egos, the brands, the labels, and the resentments. It is time to put Alberta first," Kenney said.

"Wildrose members are not enemies. They are former Progressive Conservatives."

But his opponent, Vermilion-Lloydminster MLA Richard Starke, told delegates that he was both a progressive and a conservative and he argued the party is better off when members remain that way. 

"You will have to pry my Progressive Conservative membership card out of my cold, dead, hands," he said. 

About 1,700 delegates are eligible to pick the next, and possibly last, Alberta PC leader this weekend. Results of the first ballot are expected around 4:30 p.m. MT Saturday. 

Kenney, Starke and Calgary businessman Byron Nelson are vying to replace the late Jim Prentice as permanent party leader.

Kenney, widely believed to be the frontrunner, has run an aggressive campaign that launched last summer, well before the official start of the race on Oct. 1.

Since then, the race has become a divisive battle between Kenney's supporters, many with ties to the Wildrose and federal Conservative parties, and long-time party members who want to continue under a reinvigorated PC banner under either Starke or Nelson.

Kenney wants to become leader only to dissolve it in favour of creating a united conservative party.

But Starke and Nelson want to continue under the PC brand. Nelson said sticking with centrist PCs is the only way to defeat the NDP in the next election. 

"I don't want to be saying I told you so, " he told delegates. "I want what's best for Alberta, not by duct taping two broken parties together but by renewing and rebuilding right here, right now, the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta." 

More than 'the quickest path to power'

​In January, Brian Jean said he would be willing to step aside as Wildrose leader to seek the leadership of a new united conservative party to run against the NDP in 2019.

Jean sent a news release Friday indicating he has invited the new leader to meet with him on Monday. If Kenney wins, presumably those talks will be about uniting the right.

Jean said he and his caucus told members they want to preserve the Wildrose legal framework into a single conservative party governed by the grassroots.

Calgary-Hays MLA Ric McIver was flanked by every member of the Progressive Conservative caucus gave his final speech as interim leader at the party's convention Friday in Calgary. The party is choosing a new leader on Saturday. (CBC)

"While not everyone agrees, there is a common voice that we must not tear down, but build up all that we as Wildrose achieved as a party and for our province," Jean said in the statement.

"That the idea of a united conservative movement must be more than the quickest path to power, but must serve the best interests of current and future generations.

The vote marks the first time the party has chosen a leader through a delegated convention since Don Getty was chosen to replace Peter Lougheed in 1985.