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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Quebec debate: Couillard won’t let Marois change the channel Add to ...

We now know how Pauline Marois spent those long hours in debate preparartion – crafting a response to polls showing her Parti Québécois sinking fast on voter fears of a third referendum.

“There won’t be a referendum,” Ms. Marois insisted repeatedly during Thursday night’s Quebec leaders’ debate, “as long as Quebeckers aren’t ready for one.”

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There was just enough of a pause between the first and second clauses of her sentence to underscore the dilemma she faces as she attempts to recover the lead she held at the outset of the campaign, but which she has seen melt like snow in Spring as referendum talk heats up.

Ms. Marois must at once rally sovereigntists (including those who have defected to the hard-left Québec Solidaire), who won’t support the PQ unless it promises a referendum, without scaring off soft nationalists (including those who have defected to the hard-right Coalition Avenir Québec), who won’t support the PQ as long as there is even a hint of a referendum promise.

Considering the near impossibility of this task, Ms. Marois performed as well in Thursday’s debate as could possibly have been expected. But likely not well enough to win a majority government on April 7. To win one now, Ms. Marois desperately needs to change the subject and return to her original game plan of a campaign focusing on the PQ’s Charter of Quebec Values.

If that doesn’t work, she will attempt to persuade voters that the Liberals haven’t changed since they were booted out 18 months ago. They were then engulfed in scandal and plain tired after nine years in office, and Philippe Couillard has only partially renewed the Liberal team.

Of course, Mr. Couillard will try to keep the focus on the referendum.“I invite all Quebeckers who do not want a referendum to vote for us,” Mr. Couillard said in his closing remarks, echoing the comments he made at the opening of the debate.

The Liberal Leader has been the revelation of the campaign. After becoming leader a year ago, he repeatedly failed to live up to expectations and bungled his party’s Charter response. Since the election call, however, Mr. Couillard has been on fire. Yes, he has stumbled, particularly when it comes to laying out his constitutional position. But he has quickly recovered, and delivered incisive critiques of his rivals in a well-executed campaign.

In Thursday’s debate, Mr. Couillard (wearing a tie in PQ blue, instead of Liberal red) appeared the most prime-ministerial of the four leaders. He was especially calm, albeit occasionally as pedantic as you might expect a neurosurgeon and onetime teenage prodigy to be.

Polls show that the national question is far down the list of voter priorities in this election. The economy, jobs and health care dominate voter preoccupations. Yet, while the first 80 minutes of Thursday’s debate were devoted to those issues, it felt like a mere warm-up for the main act.

Indeed, most voters make little distinction between the Liberals and PQ when it comes to managing the economy or running the health-care system. Governments of each colour come and go without being able to distinguish substantive differences between them in these areas.

It’s another matter altogether when it comes to identity politics and Quebec’s constitutional status. The PQ must play the Charter card to win back CAQ voters who have gravitated toward the Liberals; the Liberals must play the referendum card to keep those same Caquistes in the fold.

Hence, the final 30 minutes of the debate may be the only ones that counted. Quebeckers must now decide what matters more to them – adopting a Charter of Values (which requires a PQ majority) or stopping a third referendum (which requires denying the PQ a majority).

Coming out of the debate, it would appear Mr. Couillard still has the long end of the stick.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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