After telling conservative sovereigntists they should vote elsewhere if they can't accept the Parti Québécois's progressive platform, party Leader Pauline Marois moved quickly to defuse a potentially explosive situation.
The PQ has always been an alliance of social-democratic and right-wing sovereigntists. Ms. Marois's comment suggested that for the first time, a PQ party leader was telling part of that coalition to get lost.
The question was clearly put to her twice during the news conference Sunday. "What suggestion do you have for conservative sovereigntists?" Ms. Marois was asked, just after she had insisted on the need to elect a progressive PQ government in the Sept. 4 election.
At first Ms. Marois shrugged off the question with a laugh. But when she was asked again, her response was stunning.
"Let them choose. They have two conservative parties before them," she said meaning the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec.
But after shaking hands with voters in a Montreal restaurant and meeting with her advisers, Ms. Marois came out on the sidewalk in an impromptu news conference to tell reporters she had not properly heard the question put to her earlier.
"I truly did not understand the question. I thought you were asking me what federalist conservatives should do," she said. "I have one thing to say to conservative sovereigntists. The Parti Québécois has always governed Quebec responsibly in its economic and social policies. …What I am telling conservative sovereigntists is that I will govern Quebec responsibly."
This was the third time Ms. Marois has had to backtrack on positions taken over the past week. After saying all Quebeckers who fail to adequately speak French would be barred from seeking public office under a PQ government, she was forced to clarify her position and said the measure, part of the proposed Quebec Citizenship Bill, would exclude current residents.
That retraction was followed by a flip-flop on the issue of citizen-initiated referendums. The PQ Leader's position from earlier this year called for a bill that would require the government to initiate a referendum on sovereignty if 15 per cent of voters signed a petition. Last week, she said that such a process would not be binding and that she would still have the freedom to veto it if she believed a referendum would go against "Quebec's superior interests."
As the campaign heads into its final stretch, Ms. Marois can't afford to make any more mistakes. She has attempted to focus on a message that underscores the progressive theme of her campaign.
Ms. Marois explained that the PQ was the only progressive party with any chance of taking office in order to pursue Quebeckers' demands of greater social justice.
"First, the election is certainly a choice between progressives and conservatives," Ms. Marois said.
As the campaign heads into the final week, the PQ strategy has been to consolidate the more progressive forces who may be tempted to vote for the left-wing, pro-sovereignty Quebec Solidaire. On Sunday, Ms. Marois campaigned in the riding of Gouin for the third time in as many weeks to support PQ incumbent MNA Nicolas Girard, who faces possible defeat at the hands of Québec Solidaire co-leader Françoise David.
Ms. Marois will need to win these close races if she hopes to win enough of the Quebec National Assembly's 125 seats to form a majority government.
"The election of a majority government allows us to recover the serenity in Quebec, and more importantly, to have policies that respond to the needs of young families," Ms. Marois said.
Ms. Marois said she needs the leverage a majority government would give her to confront the Conservative government in Ottawa and seek more powers for Quebec. That would amount to pursuing a pro-sovereignty agenda while promoting a progressive vision for Quebec. "I am convinced we can do both, that I can do both," Ms. Marois said.