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Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault walks to a restaurant in Riviere-du-Loup Que., Wednesday, August 15, 2012.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Parti Québécois is maintaining its lead in the Quebec election campaign, according to a poll released Saturday. The new poll also shows for the first time the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec ahead of the Liberals, who continue their slow decline.

Despite four televised debates this week that each attracted about 1.5-million viewers, the party standings have barely changed from pre-debate polling, indicating that voters were unmoved by the confrontations. The lively leaders debate and the one-on-one duels with the leaders of the three major parties did little to persuade voters one way or the other.

The poll conducted by Léger Marketing for the QMI news agency shows Pauline Marois's PQ leading with the support of 33 per cent of voters, ahead of the CAQ at 28 per cent and the Liberals struggling at 27 per cent.

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The PQ support remained unchanged from the Léger Marketing poll released eight days ago, just before the first leaders' debate. But François Legault's CAQ and Jean Charest's Liberals switched places. The Liberals dropped 1 per cent compared with the last Léger poll. The CAQ increased its support by 1 per cent, even though Mr. Legault was considered by most – 21 per cent – to have won the debates.

The survey was conducted on-line Thursday and Friday among 1,929 eligible voters. The internet users were chosen randomly from a pool of approximately 185,000 households. A sample this size is considered accurate within 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The survey took place during a critical moment of the campaign, when the PQ came under fire for its controversial Quebec citizenship proposal, which would bar newcomers who don't adequately speak French – either immigrants or those arriving from the rest of Canada – from seeking public office .

At the same time, Ms. Marois reversed a party position allowing for a citizen-initiated referendum on sovereignty. Even if citizens met the requirement of signing up 15-per cent of eligible voters to support a referendum on sovereignty, Ms. Marois said she would ask the National Assembly to veto the motion if she believed it wasn't in Quebec's best interest to proceed.

Given the timing of the poll, it may be difficult to gauge whether these issues played a role in the voter intentions expressed by those surveyed.

Among the vital francophone voters, who will decide the fate of the election, the poll suggests that Mr. Charest faces what may be an insurmountable challenge as the campaign heads into the final week before the Sept. 4 vote. While the PQ was at 38 per cent among francophone voters, the CAQ was slowly closing the gap with the support of 31 per cent of francophones, a four percentage point increase from the last poll. At just 18 per cent among francophone voters, the Liberals have a gruelling task ahead of them.

If the Liberals remained at 27 per cent on election night, it would be their worst showing ever, pollster Jean-Marc Léger told the Journal de Québec. Mr. Léger also noted that the numbers indicate the PQ would form a minority government, but much of that will depend how the vote splits in key ridings.

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"There has been little movement on the part of voters," Mr. Léger told the Quebec City daily. "The debates confirmed the vote. We are still in a three-way race."

Mr. Charest's support was concentrated in large part among the staunchly federalist non-francophone voters, mainly in Montreal. The Liberals have the support of 67 per cent of non-francophone voters, far ahead of the CAQ at 15-per cent according to the poll. The survey also showed that the Liberals dominated among those aged 65-years and older and were behind the other two parties in all other age groups.

As previous polls have shown, the PQ and the CAQ are locked into tough races in the voter-rich ridings just north of Montreal, as well as some ridings on the city's south shore of the St. Lawrence river.

In the ridings north of Montreal, the PQ was ahead with 36 per cent of those polled, ahead of the CAQ at 30 per cent. Ms. Marois also leads on the south shore, where her party has the support of 34 per cent of eligible voters polled, compared with the CAQ's 26 per cent.

Close races were also taking place in the Quebec City region, where the CAQ appears to have a stranglehold. At 46-per cent the CAQ has almost twice as many supporters as the other two parties. The numbers, however, may include the ridings located on the south shore of Quebec City where the former Action démocratique du Québec party dominated. This is the same region that elected four of the five Conservatives in Quebec in last year's federal election.

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