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NDP Leader Jack Layton raises a pint during a campaign stop at a sports bar in Montreal during the Habs-Bruins playoff game on April 14, 2011. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton raises a pint during a campaign stop at a sports bar in Montreal during the Habs-Bruins playoff game on April 14, 2011. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

In wake of French debate, Quebec gets a whole lot of face time Add to ...

Buoyed by decent showings in the French debate, the four federal party leaders immediately set course for Quebec, two of them with carefully calibrated wedges in hand.

Jack Layton made a vague and far-off pledge Thursday to once again seek constitutional reconciliation with Quebec while Stephen Harper made a micro-promise to move the offices of the federal Quebec development agency out of Montreal to some long-suffering region in the province.

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While all party leaders came out of the French debate to fair-but-unenthusiastic reviews, Mr. Layton is the only one who seems to have much momentum in Quebec right now. Polls Thursday showed Quebeckers think he has solid leadership skills and that New Democrats are on a gentle upswing in the province and competitive with the other federalist parties.

With polls otherwise relatively static, Quebec seems unlikely to deliver a majority to Mr. Harper or put Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in power, but there's enough at stake to define failure for all four main party leaders.

Mr. Harper needs to gain a dozen seats to have a clear majority, and can't afford to lose many of the 11 Conservative seats he has in Quebec. Liberals are desperate to arrest or reverse the long-term decline that has turned the party from a Quebec powerhouse into another federalist also-ran.

Mr. Layton only has one seat in Quebec, where he has nearly tripled NDP support since 2004. Adding one or two more would be quite a coup; having none would be devastating. Meanwhile, with 47 seats, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe has a bit more margin to allow for his softening vote. He defines success as holding a majority of Quebec's 75 seats, but anything around 40 would probably lead to hard questions.

Mr. Layton arrived in Quebec facing a host of questions over his suggestion the Constitution needs to be reopened.

The NDP Leader repeated the point he made in the French debate, saying he wants to get Quebec's approval of the Canadian Constitution. After stressful and unsuccessful attempts in the 1980s and '90s, many Canadians, including Quebeckers, are not anxious to go there again.

If it flies anywhere, it might be Gatineau, Que., where Mr. Layton began his day. The city sits across the river from Ottawa and is home to many civil servants who voted overwhelmingly against Quebec sovereignty in the 1995 referendum. Gatineau is a riding with a three-way race and may be the NDP's best hope to adding a Quebec seat.

"It's abnormal and unacceptable to have a situation in which we find ourselves. The National Assembly did not give its support to the Canadian Constitution," Mr. Layton said.

Mr. Layton said he recognizes it will take time to establish the right conditions for any new talks.

Campaigning in the Quebec City region, where most of his seats are clustered, Mr. Harper's promise to move the regional development office is aimed at a rift in Quebec that sometimes sets resentful regions against the dominating metropolis.

Mr. Harper has no seats anywhere near Montreal, and scant prospects of obtaining any when Canadians vote May 2.

Quebeckers outside the province's largest city "want the decisions regarding their economic development to be made in their region," Mr. Harper told a small gathering of supporters in Beaupré, Que.

He did not specify where, exactly, those offices would move.

Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Ignatieff also started their day in Gatineau, a riding held by the Bloc.

Adding to the growing list of surgical promises made in this campaign, Mr. Ignatieff said a Liberal government would support the construction of a new bridge joining Gatineau and Ottawa. Many public servants cross the area's bridges each day and congestion is always a major issue during rush hour.

"A Liberal government will move the project forward. It will be a great project for the 150th anniversary of Canada, 2017, to build a bridge over the river binding the two provinces together. It's a symbol," he said. No money is set aside in the Liberal platform to deliver on this promise.

With reports from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa, John Ibbitson in Beaupré, Que., and Bill Curry in Gatineau, Que.

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