The Bloc Québécois grew into a formidable political machine in Quebec by playing down its sovereigntist agenda and focusing instead on protecting the province's social-democratic values and progressive culture.
This time around, however, that strategy isn't working. And so, with the NDP creeping up to first place in the province by capturing a greater share of young, urban and left-wing voters, the Bloc is being forced to fall back on its sovereigntist base at the last minute.
Some Bloc insiders cringe at the thought that sovereignty has only emerged as the top issue at the end of the campaign, instead of at the start, when the Bloc tried to position itself as the antidote to the right-wing Conservative government.
The Bloc's slogan "Parlons Qc"- meaning "Let's talk about Quebec" - was launched four weeks ago with a number of variants, such as "Let's talk about" the regions, culture, solidarity or the economy. However, there was no "Let's talk about sovereignty" to satisfy the party's core supporters.
There are growing concerns among sovereigntists that with its tendency to play it safe and play down its political option, the Bloc is losing steam and its ability to influence Quebec and Canadian politics.
There is also a feeling that by always attacking the other federalist parties, the Bloc is turning off voters.
"The messaging is constantly negative. Quebeckers can't stand that," said a long-time Bloc supporter.
The Bloc long benefited from its social-democratic strategy, as it flirted in the middle of the last decade with support in the 50-per-cent range and tried to win over ethnic communities and previously unassailable ridings.
But not this time, as a fatigue with the Bloc seems to be settling over the province.
"The Bloc hasn't been pushing the nationalist agenda, but rather a social one," said Eric Bédard, a disenchanted Bloc supporter and university professor in Montreal. "It's like a boomerang, it's coming back to hurt them."
In a bid to turn the tide, the Bloc has been showcasing sovereigntist warhorses this week, such as former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau and former union leader Gérald Larose, to crank up the party's supporters.
However, Mr. Larose's intervention backfired on Wednesday as he used crude expressions to describe federalist leaders as scammers and crooks.
Bloc officials travelling with Mr. Duceppe refused to conduct a public analysis of their campaign, stating that it will have to wait until after May 2. Still, they know their leader is not winning over supporters with his snarky replies and tightly wound demeanour when he deals with issues such as Mr. Larose's slip-up.
Mr. Duceppe also acknowledged that he underestimated the potential growth of the NDP in Quebec.
"We didn't expect it at that level, but we're not the only ones," he said Wednesday.
The Bloc currently holds 47 ridings. Mr. Duceppe refused to give any objective for election day, but his worst ever showing was 38 seats in 2000
With a strong lead over the other parties at the start of the campaign, the Bloc was feeling optimistic that it could win back seats that were lost to the Conservatives in and around Quebec City in 2006.
However, the party's base was vulnerable. Across the provinces, there are Quebeckers adopting the "time for a change" attitude that normally afflicts governments, but that has now hit the opposition party that has won a majority of seats in Quebec in every election since 1993.
Mr. Bédard offered one of the first signs that the Bloc campaign was in trouble four weeks ago, before any drop in the polls. In an open letter, he said he would not be voting for the Bloc for the first time ever, having never stomached the Bloc's support for the 2008 coalition proposal that would have been led by arch-federalist former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.
In an interview, he said the Bloc alienated supporters by supporting a left-wing coalition without obtaining any significant concessions on Quebec's historical demands for additional powers. Mr. Bédard said the Bloc's goal has become the protection of "Quebec values," widely interpreted to mean social-democratic ones, even though NDP already occupies that niche.
"People are saying, 'Let's support the real progressives. Why vote for the copy when you can vote for the real thing,'" Mr. Bédard said.