Jean Charest has launched a last-ditch strategy to save his campaign and political legacy, recasting the Liberal Party as the only force able to block the separatist Parti Québécois.
Stuck in third in most credible polls and campaigning all week in longtime Liberal seats once thought to be safe, Mr. Charest is attempting to cast doubt on the prevailing narrative of a two-way horserace – one that excludes him.
Mr. Charest delved into scenarios involving his possible defeat for the first time Thursday, suggesting it is tactically impossible for François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec to win Tuesday's election.
The Liberal Leader listed the many regions of Quebec where Mr. Legault's team is weak, from the rural eastern and western extremities of the province to the Eastern Townships and the entire island of Montreal. "Anyone thinking of voting for the CAQ is going to end up with Pauline Marois. That's what the real politics are here," Mr. Charest said.
With support among francophones around 20 per cent, Mr. Charest's Liberals are in danger of going down to an unprecedented historic defeat, one that could approach the collapse suffered by the Liberal Party's federal cousin in Quebec in the 2011 election. The Grits won seven of 75 seats and 14 per cent of the popular vote.
In the first sign Mr. Charest was changing strategy, the Liberal Leader used higher-than-usual advance poll turnout in the Eastern Townships to suggest Wednesday that the electorate may be shifting.
"Pay attention. Something is happening," he said. However, high advance poll numbers usually point more to a desire for change than a sudden wish to give a nearly 10-year-old government a fourth mandate.
Mr. Charest has campaigned on an offer of stability and on his record, including Quebec's relatively strong economy following the 2008 financial crisis. He has also insisted Pauline Marois and the PQ will try to rip Canada apart and Mr. Legault is unreliable on the question, and many others.
Mr. Legault has been assailed from both opponents throughout the election for trying to remain neutral on the question of independence versus federalism.
"If you vote for me you'll get a premier who says, without any doubt, that the future of Quebec lies in Canada," Mr. Charest said. "Did Mr. Legault say, 'I am a federalist?' That is the first distinction. I am a federalist.
"If, God forbid, there is a referendum, François Legault will disappear to his basement where he will spend 40 days locked up in the cooler, waiting to come out."
It was also expected law and order might feature prominently in the campaign after Mr. Charest spent the spring trying to regain control of social unrest triggered by a university tuition increase.
Mr. Charest skirted past a small group of protesters calling for more subsidized housing at an event in Montreal, where he is trying to hang on to a seat in the gentrifying Montreal neighbourhood of St-Henri. He has also made a rare blitz into English-language radio and television, bolstering the anglophone part of his base.