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Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois speaks after a one-on-one debate with Liberal Leader Jean Charest on Tuesday.Paul Chiasson

Pauline Marois held her own in a one-on-one debate battle against Liberal Leader Jean Charest in what could be a march to a Parti Québécois government.

As sparks flew in Monday night's debate between the two in Montreal, Ms. Marois, leading in the polls, remained cool and composed as if to show that she had the demeanour to take the heat from her political foe and the credentials to become premier.

And when the debate turned to last spring's controversial student strike and social tensions, Ms. Marois questioned Mr. Charest's leadership. "You confronted our youth … you never do that when you are Premier of Quebec," Ms. Marois said.

If the PQ were to form a government, Ms. Marois has promised that Quebec would change significantly. She has reiterated that the province would fight Ottawa for more powers to assume full authority over jurisdictions such as culture and employment insurance. And the possibility of another referendum on sovereignty would be a major factor in her dealings with the rest of the country.

From the outset, she placed Mr. Charest on the defensive in tackling the delicate issue of government corruption. He appeared angry in a number of ugly confrontations on the issue.

The embattled Mr. Charest nonetheless mounted an aggressive attack against the PQ Leader in a desperate attempt to defend his government's integrity.

In one emblematic exchange, Mr. Charest defended two ministers who quit under allegations of influence peddling, Tony Tomassi and David Whissell.

"You have said things and made insinuations that were never founded," Mr. Charest said in an angry tone. "Your mudslinging has harmed the entire political class. ... All you are doing is dirtying the reputation of someone who was never accused of doing anything wrong."

He also defended Mr. Tomassi, saying he also left government for personal reasons. He was charged with fraud for allegedly accepting favours about a month after he quit.

The debate instantly turned intense and argumentative in Monday's one-on-one format, where the two leaders sat facing one another with few interruptions from the moderator. There were no interruptions, of course, from the election rivals who were sidelined after Sunday's four-person debate. Mr. Charest was more combative, while Ms. Marois appeared much more comfortable in the format than during Sunday's affair.

Mr. Charest fought back accusing Ms. Marois of backing intimidation and violence by wearing the red square, the symbol of the student movement, in support of their strike. But that only drew attention to the fact that Mr. Charest has done few spontaneous streeters with voters during the campaign. "Mr. Charest needs to spend more time in the street. Go downtown and find out how our citizens are shocked."

In his attempt to shore up declining support with francophone voters, Mr. Charest defended his government's handling of the thorny language issue. "The French language is not receding in Quebec, it's advancing. You are dividing Quebeckers," he said to Ms. Marois about the PQ plan to eventually hold another referendum of sovereignty.

"Quebec needs stability, not a referendum that will divide Quebeckers," Mr. Charest said, adding Ms. Marois is "playing casino" with the future of Quebec. Ms. Marois tried to be reassuring, insisting that no referendum will be held unless there is a desire for one from Quebeckers. "We won't be conducting a referendum in hiding, we'll have time for a debate, we'll discuss it. We'll show Quebeckers we are poorly served by federalism."

She spent several minutes ducking a direct question about whether she will call a referendum if she wins.

"I hope there will be [a referendum] but I want to maintain the possibility of making that decision, so that when we hold one, we'll win it," she said.

The dynamics Monday night were much different than what viewers saw on Sunday night's all-leaders debate.

That two-hour debate was far from a serene affair, but settled little. The three main leaders traded potshots in an inconclusive draw, which likely served Ms. Marois in her mission to maintain a lead. One leader that fared well was Françoise David, the leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire.

Ms. David is excluded from the remaining three debates.