After two weeks of cagey summer campaigning, Quebec's electioneering political leaders face an unprecedented four days of televised political debates, starting Sunday, that will define their fortunes.
It's a chance for Liberal Leader Jean Charest to arrest a slide by putting the campaign back on his own terms. The Parti Québécois's Pauline Marois, now the front-runner, will try to get through unscathed. And the rising CAQ Leader, François Legault, faces his first high-profile, direct-to-the-voter test that could make his campaign take flight, or flop.
It is a high-pressure playoff: four debates in a row, including three one-on-one duels.
Quebec voters, still in barbecue season or returning from vacation, will see it dominate prime time TV in their homes. Afterward, leaders who have so far had light schedules will accelerate the pace in the 12 days left.
This is the campaign's wake-up call.
"The rhythm's going to change," said pollster Jean-Marc Léger, the president of Léger Marketing.
Many Quebeckers are just tuning in. Nadia Teoli, a 27-year-old salesperson in a Quebec City food store, said she was beginning now to turn her attention to the campaign. "I have an 18-month-old baby. That changes your perspective about a lot of things like daycare services," she said. "And I think it's time for a change."
An unusual campaign has made the debates even more crucial. So far, no issue has dominated, with student strikes fizzling, allegations of corruption returning, and controversies about the work ethic of Quebec students, the wearing of hijabs, and the National Assembly's crucifix bubbling into the news.
The rise of Mr. Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec, benefiting from a mood for change, will add to the intensity. The question people are asking is whether this new leader has l'etoffe d'un premier ministre – the stuff of a premier.
Mr. Charest, a wily tactician, has been telling reporters he knows he'll be everyone's target in the debates. Mr. Léger, the pollster, disagrees: "François Legault will be the target," he said.
For Mr. Charest, in danger of falling into third place, his one-on-one debate Tuesday with Mr. Legault is crucial. "That's where Jean Charest will play his last card," Mr. Léger said.
Then there's the PQ's Ms. Marois, who's quietly extending her lead in the polls as Mr. Legault garners attention and takes support from the Liberals. She'll play defence in the debates as she seeks to avoid being derailed.
At the mid-point, this wasn't what Mr. Charest had planned. He chose to go on the hustings in August, expecting a low-key campaign that might be disturbed only by a new round of student strikes – and that the backlash against those boycotts, and his reputation as a sound economic manager, would win the support of a "silent majority."
But the strikes fizzled, and Mr. Legault's recruitment of anti-corruption fighter Jacques Duchesneau turned attention back to allegations of abuses of power in Mr. Charest's Quebec City.
The Liberal Leader's campaign is slow and steady, with three unhurried events a day and lingering rallies with supporters; on Wednesday, at a farm in Upton, he spent an hour shaking the hands or kissing the cheeks of all 250 supporters.
It's a strategy designed to keep an embattled, long-serving Premier from suffering damage early on, so he can stay close to Ms. Marois until the debates. Afterward, aides say, he'll pick up the pace.
Mr. Charest is a street-smart politician with a talent for rhetorical attacks. So in these debates, he might revive the student strikes as an issue, take credit for a tough back-to-school law and a smooth return to classes this week, and attack Ms. Marois for siding with protesters and flip-flopping on tuition hikes. He will, as he has for a week, attack Mr. Legault's credibility by portraying him as an "unreliable" flip-flopper.
He will also try to bring back attention to his remaining strong suit – the economy – by warning Quebeckers they still need to steer through uncertain economic times, a winning message in the 2008 election, during a financial crisis, that doesn't seem to be sticking now.
Ms. Marois, meanwhile, faces a balancing act. She needs to reassure some voters she won't hold a sovereignty referendum any time soon, but still appeal to sovereigntists whose enthusiasm is key to her organization, and even more telling in a three-way race.
Most important for Ms. Marois is to preserve her lead, to avoid being gored, remain serene, and come across as a potential premier. "We will show that we are ready to govern the province," said Shirley Bishop, a senior PQ organizer in the party's war room.
But by far the leader with the most on the line is Mr. Legault. Half of his current supporters say they could change their mind by election day, said Mr. Léger, the pollster. There's a deep desire for change in Quebec, and the question is whether Mr. Legault, a former PQ minister whom many Quebeckers haven't examined closely as a leader, can give voters confidence.
"For Francois Legault, it's a question of credibility," Mr. Léger said.
The CAQ's director of communication, Richard Thibault, said fighting corruption will be a key theme – as well as first impressions. "We are a young party and our objective is to get voters to know us and see that we are different from the old parties in what we stand for," he said.