Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Polls don't look good for Charest, Liberals

Quebec premier may lose his own riding

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SHERBROOKE, Que. -- How tough is the fight ahead for Jean Charest's Liberals? The polls hint at the party's defeat and point to the premier losing his own seat.

Even the guy who lives in Charest's childhood home might not vote for him. He voted against the premier in the last election and is weighing his options this time. Philippe Duvivier, who bought the modest, red-brick house in Sherbrooke, Que., from the Charest family about four years ago, said the feeling in town toward the Liberal leader is just as uncertain.

"There are people for him and people against him," Duvivier said on the front stoop of the home that housed the Charests for half a century.

Charest has clung to the Sherbrooke seat in eight federal and provincial elections since he entered politics in 1984. He survived the devastation of the Progressive Conservative defeat in 1993 that reduced the party to two seats in Parliament.

New polls Friday suggest the Parti Québécois has a solid lead among francophone voters, teetering between minority and majority government territory.

A separate survey taken in Charest's Sherbrooke riding suggests a 15-point advantage for his PQ opponent, a former Bloc Québécois federal MP for the area.

PQ supporters had difficulty containing themselves Friday in the downtown campaign headquarters for Serge Cardin. One grinning young man inside the office rubbed his hands together as he approached a reporter: "This is going to be an historic election."

Cardin could succeed Charest for the second time in a political office. When Charest left federal politics, it was Cardin who won his vacant seat. Now he's hoping to force the premier out at the provincial level.

Cardin, 62, said locals remember what he was able to accomplish during his years as a Bloc MP, and they're fed up with the premier and the "odour of corruption" around his Liberal party.

Cardin remains cautious when reading the polls. He has fresh memories of losing his federal seat in the New Democrats' 2011 Quebec surge.

"We're not taking anything for granted," said the former Sherbrooke city councillor. Cardin first won the federal riding for the Bloc in a 1998 byelection and held it in four more federal races.

But one Sherbrooke man remembers a scrappy young Charest and warns the old warrior shouldn't be counted out now.

"Evidently, I am pro-Charest, but this doesn't mean that the government is perfect -- perfect governments don't exist," said Bernard Bonneau, a mentor to the wild-haired, teenage Charest.

Bonneau, who was a religious counsellor at Charest's high school, believes corruption allegations against the Liberals have been exaggerated.

The 78-year-old praised the government for how it guided the province through the global recession. The province's unemployment rate is virtually equal to the national average, a considerable change from when Charest took office in 2003.

A tough race in Sherbrooke isn't new, he said: "This is a riding that has always been close."

Charest won the seat in 2008 by earning about 45 per cent of the votes compared to nearly 38 per cent for his PQ rival, a difference of 2,314 ballots.

In 2007, he received under 37 per cent of the votes compared to nearly 33 per cent for the PQ candidate, a gap of 1,332 votes.

Bonneau remembers watching Charest overcome big political obstacles in his hometown, starting with his first campaign speech at 16.

He urged the feisty Charest to run for student-body president at École Montcalm. Bonneau even helped him pen his campaign speech.

Moments before Charest was to deliver the address, he began to panic. Charest wound up giving a passionate speech off the top of his head -- without pulling a copy of the address from his pocket.

There was wild applause from Charest's peers. He won the election later that day.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 A20

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