The leaders debate in French brought home the real challenge of this election in Quebec's partisan landscape: namely, what to do about the federalist vote.
It seems clear at this point that, for a good chunk of voters, the Bloc is still seen as the most effective voice for Quebec's interests. So far, the election campaign has not put much of a dent in the Bloc's 40-per-cent support, nor the 45 to 50 seats it can expect to win on May 2.
Gilles Duceppe's strategy in Wednesday's debate was intended to solidify that support. He was clearly in his element, both in terms of his mastery of the language and experience in the debate format, and in his forensic knowledge of policy details that affect Quebec.
From the forestry industry to employment insurance, from UNESCO to the HST, Mr. Duceppe was on message and on target. But his performance was also designed to galvanize and mobilize the Bloc's base and get the vote out by reminding the party faithful that the questions surrounding Quebec's place in Canada, including the sovereigntist option, are still in play.
If chipping away at the Bloc seems less and less an option for Mr. Duceppe's opponents, what happens to the rest of the vote? Will the French debate make voters rethink their options from now to voting day?
For Stephen Harper, the strategy was to be low-key and divisive in order to hang on to his 10 seats in Quebec, all of them outside metropolitan Montreal. He may have come across as stilted and passive in his delivery, but his words were armed and dangerous. Mr. Harper hammered home his "regions first" rhetoric, clearly focused on using regional resentment against the big cosmopolitan city as a wedge.
For example, he suggested that repairs to the federally owned Champlain Bridge shouldn't be made on the backs of "the regions" - take that, Montreal! In so doing, Mr. Harper deftly avoided the pesky problem of being seen as a panderer to Quebec's demands in the rest of the country.
Michael Ignatieff's challenge in this campaign has been to bring the Liberal brand back to life in Quebec. His debate performance in French was commendable - he came across as statesmanlike in his foreign-policy exchanges, solid in his defence of parliamentary democracy - but on the issues where Quebec voters are likely to gauge federal parties, the Liberals' saliency remains limited. His appeal for Quebeckers to maintain their "dual identities" was passionate but likely to be seen with skepticism by francophone federalists who remember the constitutional debacles of the past generation.
With Mr. Harper appealing to the Conservative beachhead in Quebec, and Mr. Ignatieff doing little to sway voters beyond the Liberals' Montreal enclave, NDP Leader Jack Layton's goal was to transcend the divide and appeal to the "left" across Quebec. He showed his stuff in the French language, confirming why so many Quebeckers find him so sympathique. But Mr. Layton's style is not enough to bring substance to NDP support in Quebec. It became obvious Wednesday that the New Democrats have little new to offer Quebec voters and, as the Bloc Leader took pains to remind Mr. Layton, the NDP is seen as just another third party on federal ice.
All three federalist party leaders did reasonably well in the French-language debate, but there is little that points to a breakthrough that could chip away at Bloc support. Instead, the debate may have shown the opposite. For the small number of seats that are in still in play in Quebec, the three federalist parties increasingly look like they might be chipping away at each other.
Antonia Maioni is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.