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Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois,leaves the stage after her post-debate news conference in Montreal on March 20, 2014. (RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois,leaves the stage after her post-debate news conference in Montreal on March 20, 2014. (RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

In debate, Couillard holds his own as Marois is put on the ropes Add to ...

A political debate never really is about the finer issues or the subtleties of public policy. For better or for worse, it boils down to a simple question: Who won?

Québec Solidaire Leader Françoise David stood out, just as she did in the 2012 debate, as a serene and likeable politician in what started as a cacophonic boxing match on the Quebec economy. But as this left-wing politician can only chip away at the Parti Québécois’s electorate in a small number of Montreal ridings, her performance matters little for the outcome of the election.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault was true to form, but he didn’t deliver the knock-out punch that would have allowed his party to bounce back from its third and increasingly distant place in the opinion polls. Since Pierre Karl Péladeau entered politics with his fist raised for an independent Quebec, this has been a two-party race between the traditional federalist and sovereigntist parties.

And in this duel that set Premier Pauline Marois against Philippe Couillard, it is the Liberal Leader that came out as the winner. In his first televised debate, Mr. Couillard, whose electric blue tie matched his Quebec flag pin, came across as authoritative, as premier material – even daring to correct presenter Anne-Marie Dussault on facts.

Mr. Couillard should have been the target of most attacks, as the latest CROP-La Presse poll put the Liberal Party slightly ahead of the PQ. But it was he and his fellow opposition party leaders that put Ms. Marois on the ropes and put the Premier on the defensive. They attacked her on promoting the exploitation of petroleum on Anticosti Island, where no major oil company has ventured thus far, on the PQ’s lacklustre job creation, and on the referendum – Ms. Marois’s Achilles heel.

Predictably, Mr. Couillard outdid himself as he raised the spectre of a referendum so often that observers lost count of how many times he used the word, as he pushed his economy-first agenda.

But Ms. Marois, in her sober grey tweed suit, was unable to respond convincingly to the question that is on everybody’s mind. Will there or will there not be referendum on Quebec’s independence if the PQ is re-elected. Ms. Marois’s answer, “there will be no referendum if Quebeckers don’t want one,” remains desperately short on clarity. Everybody knows that if the PQ thinks it has any chance of winning a referendum, of reaching the promised land, it would find a way to make it happen the same way it manufactured an identity crisis to bring forward a charter of Quebec values in a cynical bid to win a majority. This, notwithstanding the fact that two-thirds of Quebeckers don’t want another divisive debate on nationhood.

Ms. Marois was unable to alter the course the election has taken ever since Mr. Péladeau announced his candidacy.

There are still three weeks to go until Quebeckers go to the polls, an eternity in politics. Moreover, debates rarely change the course of an election – and this one was certainly no exception, with its political bickering that is unpalatable to most Quebeckers.

But at the midpoint of the campaign, the PQ government that gambled it would win a majority is now facing an uphill battle.

Follow on Twitter: @S_Cousineau

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