Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

For Charest, it's do or die time

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Who can stop Pauline Marois? Is voting for the Quebec Liberal Party still the best way to prevent the election of a Parti Québécois government?

Or is it casting a strategic vote for former sovereignist Franßois Legault's new Coalition Avenir Québec as the lesser evil compared to the PQ?

Those are questions the Liberals' diehard federalist supporters might be facing by the Sept. 4 Quebec election.

The official election campaign is only reaching its midpoint. There are still more than two weeks left until voting day.

Voters who haven't been following the summertime campaign might not start to think about their choices until after the televised leaders debates -- there will be four in this campaign instead of the usual one; more on that later -- that began Sunday evening.

And voters might not reach final decisions about whom to vote for, or even about whether to vote at all, until voting day.

But so far, the campaign has not gone the Liberals' way.

The economy, the Liberals' strength for more than 40 years, appears to be less of a priority for voters than corruption.

Jean Charest's promise to create 250,000 new jobs in five years, a watered-down rebottling of Robert Bourassa's 1970 pledge of 100,000 jobs in a single year, has failed to capture the voters' attention as Bourassa's did.

If the Liberals were counting on a voter backlash against renewed disruptions by students over tuition-fee increases, they've been disappointed so far because the protests have not materialized.

Maybe the students wanted to avoid playing into Liberal strategy and helping re-elect a government that would maintain the increases, while the PQ would cancel them.

Or maybe the Liberals are victims of the success of their own anti-protest legislation. By suspending the academic sessions on campuses where students were on "strike" against the increases, the legislation created a cooling-off period that appears to have broken the momentum of the strike movement.

Results of two polls by different firms using different methods published on Thursday and Friday show the same general pattern: the PQ with enough support to form a majority government, the Liberals facing their worst defeat since 1976 and the CAQ showing signs of gathering momentum.

But the PQ may have peaked too soon in the campaign. There is time for it to become the main target of the other parties, for the election of a PQ government to become an issue itself and for anti-PQ voters to rally behind either the Liberals or the CAQ.

For the Liberals, next week's leaders debates could be their last chance to jump-start a campaign that appears to be going nowhere.

As a first-time television debater, Legault can benefit from the audience's curiosity and low performance expectations in the debates.

But overall, the debates appear to favour Charest.

He's the most experienced and the best television debater among the leaders, quick-thinking and sharp-tongued, with a killer instinct for an opponent's vulnerabilities.

While the incumbent is usually on the defensive against critics who outnumber him in the traditional debate, Charest will be on an even footing in his two one-on-one matchups.

It remains to be seen how many voters will sit through political debates on four consecutive evenings in August. The question now is whether Charest can still be an asset to his party in the debates, or whether he goes into them as "the most hated man in Quebec," as one of Bourassa's own candidates described Bourassa in the 1976 campaign.

He will have a chance in the debates to speak to the voters directly. But how many will still be willing to listen?

-- The Montreal Gazette

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2012 A11

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