It ain't easy being the front runner in the Quebec elections– or so Liberal Party leader Philippe Couillard has learned.
Mr. Couillard could have consolidated his lead in opinion polls with a stellar performance in the second televised debate that aired Thursday night on the TVA network. After all, he had scored big in the first debate presented a week ago.
Instead, his political opponents ganged up against him early on, when moderator Pierre Bruneau raised integrity issues. Forget the "Face-à-face 2014," as the series of duels was coined, this was a three against one confrontation. And by the time the two-hour debate ended, Mr. Couillard could barely crack a smile.
The liberal leader lost all the self-assuredness he exhibited in the group photo snapped seconds before the debate when his opponents questioned him on his short-lived business association with Arthur Porter, the former head of the McGill University Health Center, who faces criminal charges over an alleged $22-million fraud and kickback scheme. Mr. Couillard had planned to start a consulting business with Dr. Porter, but dropped the project before it got off the ground.
Then Mr. Couillard was attacked for keeping an offshore account in the island of Jersey in the 1990s, at a time when he worked as a neurosurgeon in Saudi Arabia. While there is no indication Mr. Couillard acted illegally – he paid taxes on the interests earned in the account, which is now closed – his opponents have claimed he wasn't as forthcoming as he should have been about his finances.
While largely expected, the accusations hurt. One hour into the debate, Mr. Couillard fell so quiet he appeared missing in action. The liberal leader regained his combativeness when the prospect of another referendum on Quebec's independence was raised in the later part of the debate. He criticized Premier Pauline Marois forcibly on what he claims is her hidden agenda, but this was too little too late.
In contrast, Ms. Marois found the assertiveness she lacked in last week's debate. No more stuttering, less finger pointing: the Parti Québécois leader made her case serenely. She nonetheless had a difficult time defending her deliberately evasive position on the referendum, attacked on both sides for being both too tepid and too much in a hurry. But the issue didn't gain as much prominence as in the first televised debate, and Ms. Marois escaped relatively unharmed.
"When the times get tough, you know you can count on me," she boasted in the end.
It is François Legault, however, who truly stole the show.
His Coalition Avenir Québec party, which stands far behind in third place, could be almost wiped off the map in the April 7 elections. Many of its supporters have moved towards the liberals because of their federalist stance. So Mr. Legault came out swinging with biting attacks against both Mr. Couillard and Ms. Marois.
He pounded on the PQ government's partisan nominations. He derided the Liberals for wanting to protect school boards, saying parents were more interested in front-line services than in school elections as their abysmal participation rates show.
He blamed Ms. Marois for stretching out, for months on end, the divisive debate on the Charter of Quebec Values, for purely electoral reasons, instead of coming to a quick compromise.
But he kept his most cutting remarks for Mr. Couilllard. Mr. Legault said the liberal leader was "hesitant when it came time to defending French." He also added Mr. Couillard was "incapable of defending Quebec values." To put things into perspective, those are possibly the worst accusations you could levy against a Quebec politician short of calling him a pedophile.
The swipes were egregious and demagogic. But for better or for worse, that is fair game in a political debate where the leader with the best one-liners rules.
It remains to be seen if Mr. Legault's strong showing will translate into votes and allow the CAQ to retain its ridings. Debates can be deceptive inasmuch as they rarely alter the course of an election.
One thing is certain, though. With 10 days to go until Quebeckers vote, the PQ and the Liberal Party are still in a dead heat.