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Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault watches as polls come in Monday night with his wife, Isabelle Brais.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Politicians rarely discuss the worst-case scenario in public.

François Legault brands himself as a different kind of politician, so 36 days ago he did just that.

"If people don't want anything to do with me … this is the end," he told a radio interviewer on the eve of a bruising provincial election campaign.

But the wake will have to be postponed: The Coalition Avenir Québec was winning or ahead in 21 seats at press time, a tally that may surpass its 19 seats in the 2012 election. Its share of the popular vote, however, was about four percentage points smaller than 18 months ago.

It didn't dim Mr. Legault's enthusiasm when he took to the stage at his campaign headquarters in Repentigny, just east of the island of Montreal.

"What a night, what a comeback . . . we fought the good fight, we chose courage, and to speak the truth to Quebeckers rather than play the electioneering card. And I don't regret where we are," he said, later adding, "Let's speak frankly here, the results weren't what we hoped they would be, but it's clear we have sown seeds for the future."

The result marks a significant turnaround from Mar. 18, when a poll showed Mr. Legault's centre-right CAQ languishing at 13 per cent – its worst showing since the party was born in 2011.

Perhaps his much-derided groaner of a campaign slogan – "On se donne Legault," a play on words with the French analogue of 'let's give it a go' – should have been a tip-off.

The glass half-full view is that the late-surging CAQ simply ran out of clock, finishing within just a couple of percentage points of the second-place Parti Québécois – like its ancestor, the Action démocratique du Québec, the nationalist CAQ traditionally draws the bulk of its support from disaffected suburban and rural Liberals, and a smaller swath from the PQ.

That balance could be changing – many of the gains in terms of ridings were made at the PQ's expense.

The CAQ, he said, "is a political force that can no longer be overlooked."

"We have crossed through a new stage, we have passed a test in this election, that of political maturity . . . the great story of the Coalition Avenir Québec is only just beginning," said Mr. Legault, who also took the opportunity to make a pitch to Anglophone voters, saying, "We need you to build a stronger and more prosperous Quebec."

It's not clear that strategy will pay off.

The so-called 'third way' approach has been the white whale of Quebec politics for generations – one could argue the PQ began as a third option – and has made the electoral math complicated since the ADQ was founded in the aftermath of the Meech Lake accords.

But the hope that three-way races would fuel a Caquiste wave has gone unfulfilled despite Mr. Legault's best efforts.

The 56-year-old Mr. Legaut, an accountant by training, has repeatedly called this campaign "the fight of my life," and his pugnacious approach appeared to shake support loose from his rivals after the campaign low point.

Despite Mr. Legault's attempts to insist voters are tired of having to vote based on their position on the national question – his party is officially autonomist, not sovereigntist – and focus the debate on the economy and jobs, familiar fault lines emerged.

Still, the CAQ has never been able to approach the ADQ's 30.84 per cent of the popular vote (and 41 seats) in 2007 – the high-water mark for the third way.

sc: don't think we want the radio canada quote "Our message wasn't endorsed by a majority of voters, and that's certainly disappointing," Gérard Deltell, a CAQ member of the National Assembly and former leader of the ADQ, told Radio-Canada.

Mr. Legault's party made a late rally in the 2012 election (the party was at 18 per cent in week one, and took 28 per cent of the vote) buoyed by people like anti-corruption cop Jacques Duchesneau. This time, the CAQ lost ground to the Liberals in their Quebec City stronghold, where the party held 9 seats, and had lost or was trailing in five of them.

Mr. Legault said he will remain party leader for the next four years. It remains to be seen how much more building he can do in that time.

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