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Jean Charest v. Pauline Marois: Who will come out on top in tonight’s election debate?

Quebec Premier Jean Charest gestures next to his bus following a tour of Falco Technologies during an election campaign stop in La Prairie, Que., on Aug. 20.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The three main party leaders competing to be premier in the Quebec election campaign will begin a series of one-on-one televised debates Monday night. Rhéal Séguin, the Globe's Quebec City bureau chief, and Montreal bureau chief Les Perreaux discuss the implications of tonight's key matchup between the incumbent premier, Jean Charest, and his frontrunning challenger, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois.

Les: Greetings, Rhéal. Sunday night's televised debate didn't really seem to settle much. If anything, Françoise David, the leader of Québec Solidaire, who has no hope of forming the government, probably came out looking best among the four participants. It seems to me Jean Charest really has to make a splash in tonight's one-on-one debate against the frontrunner, Ms. Marois, if he has any hope of saving his skin in the Sept. 4 election. What do you think he needs to do?

Rhéal: Hi Les. Sunday night's debate sets the stage for what we can expect in the Charest-Marois duel tonight.

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However, Sunday's debate failed to address the key issue of tuition fees which sparked the social unrest and widespread demonstrations that marked last spring's confrontation between the students and the Charest government. I expect Mr. Charest to pursue his strategy of condemning the PQ for supporting the strike and along with it the "violence and intimidation" of protestors he blames for disrupting the daily lives of average Quebeckers or the so-called silent majority.

It was surprising that Mr. Charest wasn't more aggressive on that issue in the first debate. Perhaps he feared the response from his political foes would have been too aggressive. But in a one-on-one debate it will be easier for Mr. Charest to take the offensive on his law-and-order agenda and force Ms. Marois to defend her opposition to tuition fee hikes, which proved to be an unpopular position with a vast majority of voters. But also expect Ms. Marois to strongly condemn the adoption of Bill 78, which places constraints on the holding of demonstrations, as a violation of fundamental rights to free speech and assembly.

Les: With the student protests fading so fast, I wonder if law-and-order has any traction left to offer Mr. Charest. I expect him to hammer hard on the issue he's returned to again and again in his 10 years as premier: sovereignty. With so few Quebeckers looking for a referendum right now, I'll bet Mr. Charest will try to find a way to once again accuse Ms. Marois of trying to break up Canada by stealth.

Speaking of the PQ leader, I'm amazed that with all the baggage Liberals carry in this election campaign on the tired shoulders of a three-term government, Ms. Marois has managed to create so little breathing room in polls. Ms. Marois doesn't seem to have the charisma to create a sudden wave of popular support. Is there another tack she could take in these debates to boost her odds of winning a majority?

Rhéal: There doesn't appear to be a major swing in voter intentions one way or the other. For Ms. Marois the only objective is to make sure she consolidates the comfortable lead among francophone voters which would allow her to win the election. She currently has an 11-point lead over Mr. Legault among francophone voters, with Mr. Charest trailing in third place.

With only two weeks left in the campaign, the one-on-one duels will be crucial moment for the leaders. Mr. Charest will certainly attempt to convince voters that a vote for the PQ will be a vote for another referendum. And Ms. Marois will repeat what she has said from the outset of this campaign and that is the current election was not about holding another referendum but rather a vote on what she calls "a corrupt Liberal government."

But as she remains vague about the holding of another referendum her strategy has been to keep the dream alive about one day achieving independence. In the meantime she will attack Mr. Charest for bowing to the demands of Stephen Harper's Conservatives – a government that has been almost as unpopular in Quebec as the Quebec Liberals.

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There is a common thread about all the public opinion conducted in Quebec over the past few months: voter disapproval towards the Liberal government remains close to 70 per cent, a trend that will be difficult for Mr. Charest to turn around. And the PQ leader appears convinced that the trend will help her ride through the campaign unscathed as long as she avoids making any major mistake.

She may not have the charisma needed to win a popularity contest, but then neither do the leaders of the other major parties.

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