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Liberals scramble to save 'non-francophone' support as CAQ rises in polls

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault responds to questions at a news conference Wednesday, August 15, 2012 in Riviere-du-Loup, Que.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jean Charest's Quebec Liberals are scrambling to prevent François Legault from eating into their once-solid support from English-speaking and ethnic Quebeckers.

The Liberals are trying to fend off a slide into third place in the Quebec election campaign – and surprisingly, it means moving to shore up support among groups who typically deliver rock-hard support to Mr. Charest's party, allowing it to paint the western half of Montreal in Liberal red.

But a new poll published Thursday morning showed Mr. Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec party has made sudden inroads with "non-francophone" voters – those whose first language is not French. And it backs the fears of campaigning Montreal Liberals, who have seen new interest in Mr. Legault's party among traditional Liberal supporters, and many turning undecided.

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"It's worrying," said Henri-Francois Gautrin, the veteran, seven-term MNA for Verdun, a riding with a sizable minority of English-speaking voters. It's not a wave, but some of those anglos have now drifted to the undecided column, he said.

A new poll conducted by the firm CROP for the Montreal newspaper La Presse found the CAQ making sudden gains among non-francophone voters – rising from 12 per cent support to 20 per cent. (The small sample size of such voters reduces the statistical accuracy of that finding, however.)

That rise won't hurt the Parti Parti Québécois' Pauline Marois. But if it continues, it could hurt the Liberals. And the CROP poll found Mr. Charest's party is in danger of sliding into third place, now just two percentage points ahead of Mr. Legault's CAQ.

Mr. Charest's Liberals seem to be worrying. At a press conference Thursday morning, Mr. Charest moved early to pull out a tactic that is usually saved for an end-of-campaign rallying cry: warning that voting for a third party means helping the PQ to get elected – and hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty.

"In this campaign, supporting the CAQ is supporting Ms. Marois, he said. "Voting for the CAQ means you get the PQ."

And to make his appeal more directly to English-speaking Quebeckers, he portrayed Mr. Legault's pledge to scrap school boards as a dismantling of anglo institutions. "It's the same François Legault, by the way, who wants to dismantle the English school boards," he said. "Is this what we want in Quebec?"

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