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Monday's close-fought federal by-election in the Liberal stronghold of Outremont will be an acid test for Stéphane Dion's leadership, say senior Liberals, including former and current MPs.

Many in the party would see the loss of a traditional Liberal bastion as symbolic evidence that Mr. Dion cannot lead the party out of the wilderness in Quebec, many Liberals say, and therefore raise questions about whether he could lead them to victory in a general election.

A new poll shows Mr. Dion's hand-picked candidate, pundit and academic Jocelyn Coulon, six percentage points behind star NDP candidate Tom Mulcair.

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"This is a seat that is supposed to be safe and doesn't look entirely safe," former Liberal MP Liza Frulla said. "If we lose Outremont ... we will have to ask very serious questions as to why.

"Is it because of the leader? Is it because the Liberal brand continues to suffer and that we have work to do? Is it because of the division of [the federalist]vote? ... But it obviously would not be good news."

A Quebec Liberal MP, who asked not to be identified, said: "It's not panic, but there's worry. The whole game is in Outremont now."

The Outremont vote is one of three Quebec by-elections to be held on Monday. Two ridings won by the Bloc Québécois in 2006, St-Hyacinthe-Bagot and Roberval, are also up for grabs, with the Conservatives leading in Roberval.

The federal Liberals' organization in the province has long been weak outside Montreal and western Quebec, and the party's already relatively low support among francophone voters took a heavy knock with the sponsorship scandal.

But losing Outremont, a Liberal stronghold that is home to Montreal's francophone elites and large numbers of ethnic voters, could lead to fears that the party's core constituency is drifting away - to a party that has only ever won one seat in Quebec.

Some Liberal organizers and local officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, raise darker prospects that a loss in Outremont could be "the beginning of the end" for Mr. Dion's leadership.

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Some members of Mr. Dion's caucus, however, play down the symbolic importance of the by-elections, noting that the results don't always reflect what would happen in a general election because turnouts are lower and the national issues play differently.

Raymonde Folco, the Liberal MP for the suburban Montreal riding of Laval-Les Îles, noted that the NDP's Mr. Mulcair is a well-known former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, and said some voters still believe he's a Liberal. And she said she does not believe a loss would spark a putsch against the leader.

The poll, conducted by Unimarketing for the Montreal newspaper La Presse, showed Mr. Mulcair with 38 per cent of the vote; Mr. Coulon trails with 32 per cent.

In a radio interview, Mr. Dion remained optimistic.

"It's not the tribulations of one day that will stop me. Some days are good, other days not as good, and you go forward and get results for people," he said.

Mr. Coulon, a university professor and foreign-affairs media commentator, insisted that the poll does not show the reality he is seeing as he campaigns.

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Mr. Mulcair was more ebullient, boasting that his troops, knowing a by-election had to be called, were working weeks before the campaign began and had signs up the day the writ was dropped - while the Liberals were inexplicably caught flat-footed.

For the NDP, a win would be a major breakthrough. The party has not held a Quebec seat since consumer activist Phil Edmonston won a by-election in 1990.

"It will give us a base from which to work toward more ridings in the next election, because we'll be creating a lot of four-way races," Mr. Mulcair said. "As for the Liberals, I'll let the members of the Liberal Party decide what they want to do with their leader."

Liberal MP Denis Coderre said he remains confident of Liberal fortunes in Outremont, pointing out that the polls there were wrong in the last campaign. Still, he acknowledged that polls suggest the Liberals remain unpopular in francophone areas outside of Montreal.

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