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Quebec Liberal Party Leader Jean Charest responds to questions at a news conference Aug. 14, 2012 in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Jean Charest is making third-party leader François Legault his primary target, apparently calculating that his re-election depends on preventing Mr. Legault's upstart party from eating into his support.

Though he once hoped that Mr. Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec would take votes from the Parti Québécois's Pauline Marois, the Liberal Leader is now devoting much of his rhetoric to keeping Mr. Legault back. He spent the lion's share of his Tuesday morning press conference blasting Mr. Legault as "unreliable."

The opening for his attacks was Mr. Legault's comments Monday that Quebec youths had to stop dreaming of the "easy life" to keep up with hard-working students in Asian countries whose parents "have to stop them from studying at night because it's practically making them sick."

Mr. Charest shot back that Mr. Legault has a habit of basing his policies on "prejudices," and is also falsely accusing young Quebeckers of laziness. "Don't come and tell me Quebeckers and young Quebeckers aren't hard-working," Mr. Charest said.

In recent days, Mr. Charest has progressively stepped up his attacks on the CAQ leader, to the point that by Tuesday's press conference in Quebec City, he barely mentioned the PQ's Ms. Marois. He pegged Mr. Legault as an unreliable flip-flopper, a leader who keeps changing his position and disagreeing with CAQ candidates like high-profile doctor Gaétan Barrette.

"Now he's got a new position on private health care. Remember, Mr. Legault was against private health care. Now he's for a pilot project. Dr. Barrette is against the pilot project, and Dr. Barrette is for private health care. The day's not over yet, either," he said. "Conclusion: François Legault is not reliable."

He accused Mr. Legault of turning his back on pledges made to members of the now-defunct Action Democratique party when it merged with Mr. Legault's – asserting that Mr. Legault has "flushed" and humiliated them. He's ridiculed Mr. Legault for making big-spending promises while saying he will reduce the debt – and for making too many promises in general.

In Quebec City on Tuesday, he repeatedly referred to Mr. Legault as saying "he doesn't like Quebec City" – a reference to comments the CAQ leader once made in an interview that as a PQ minister and MNAs, he didn't relish the politician's life and the time it required him to spend at the National Assembly and in the capital.

The Liberal Leader's decision to devote his attacks to Mr. Legault appears to be a tactical maneuver to protect his own support after early gains by the CAQ. Ms. Marois's PQ remains the front-runner in province-wide opinion polls. But for Mr. Charest, there is a sense that his opponents are on all sides.

His former justice minister, Marc Bellemare, revealed he's thinking about launching an independent campaign to unseat Mr. Charest in the Liberal Leader's own riding of Sherbrooke – just because Mr. Charest "has to be beaten."

It was Mr. Bellemare who had levelled high-profile allegations that Quebec judges were essentially picked by party fundraisers, which forced Mr. Charest to convene a comission of inquiry in 2010. He told the Journal de Québec he'll decide whether he'll run this week.

But Mr. Charest, voluble when it came to criticizing Mr. Legault, avoided saying too much about Mr. Bellemare. "We live in a democracy, and he has a right to be a candidate," he said. "The people on the riding of Sherbrooke that I grew up with will decide."

There are signs those voters may already be turning against him: local opinion polls have placed the Parti Québécois's Serge Cardin, a former Bloc Québécois MP from the area, well ahead of Mr. Charest in the riding.