Montrealers are talking about washing up and using sanitizers these days - but not to fight the H1N1 virus. They're searching for the best leader to clean the dirt at city hall.
And the race for the city's mayor has become a toss-up.
A mud-hurling campaign appears to have hurt both Mayor Gérald Tremblay and his principal rival, long-time Péquiste Louise Harel. Both have seen their support erode in favour of third-party candidate Richard Bergeron, a new poll suggests.
The survey suggests the three candidates are so close, any of them could end up becoming mayor as Montrealers vote on Sunday.
"It's essentially a statistical tie," said Jaideep Mukerji, a vice-president of public affairs at Angus Reid, which conducted the poll published Friday in La Presse.
The candidates have been hobbled by their own distinctive baggage. Mr. Tremblay has been beset by nearly daily allegations of corruption and collusion between construction firms and city hall. Ms. Harel's life-long association with the sovereigntist movement and her poor command of English have alienated most non-francophone voters.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bergeron, an urban planner and city councillor, has watched his support grow, surveys show. He has raised eyebrows with some of his theories about smoking and 9/11 conspiracies involving the White House, but his proposals for public transit and fighting urban sprawl appear to have caught on, especially among younger voters, Mr. Mukerji said.
"He's a bit of a protest vote," he said.
Still, many Montrealers have found all three candidates unpalatable for different reasons. La Presse took the unusual step of not endorsing anyone. "Faced with the weaknesses demonstrated by each of the mayoral candidates, La Presse is not able to support one or the other," lead editorial writer André Pratte wrote this week.
Yet Montrealers weren't asking for the stars when the campaign started - just someone who'd fix the potholes and keep the city running, observers say. Marcel Côté, a prominent Montreal economist heading a task force on municipal governance, says all Montrealers are looking for is a leader "who gets the trains running on time.
"Let's take care of day-to-day operations of the city. The population is fed up," Mr. Côté said. "We need good stewardship and we don't have it."
Whoever takes the reins faces the giant task of restoring public confidence. Concerns over corruption trumped Montrealers' perennial beefs about crumbling infrastructure as their top priority, the survey found.
"It's sort of a poisoned chalice because they're going to deal with an electorate with a very cynical view toward the municipal administration," Mr. Mukerji said.
With the ethical cloud over the city, Premier Jean Charest is likely to continue facing pressure to call a public inquiry into alleged mob influence in the construction industry and ties to city hall.
"If we've had such a corrupt, damaged system for so many years, it can't be ignored," said Harold Chorney, a political economist at Concordia University in Montreal. "We have to really clean house, ventilate the place, and let the light in."
But he couldn't predict who'll be doing the cleanup. "It's a real horse race."
Montrealers aren't the only ones voting Sunday.
Quebecers throughout the province will be casting their ballot in municipal elections. Residents of 839 cities and towns will vote and 561 mayoral positions are being contested.