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Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois gestures as she responds during a news conference in Grandes-Piles, Que., on Saturday, August 25, 2012. Quebeckers are going to the polls on Sept. 4. 2012.

CLEMENT ALLARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After telling conservative sovereigntists that they should vote elsewhere if they can't accept the progressive policies of the Parti Québécois, Leader Pauline Marois moved quickly to defuse the latest controversy in her gaffe-filled campaign.

At a news conference on Sunday, Ms. Marois spoke about the need for Quebeckers to elect a progressive PQ government in the Sept. 4 election.

Twice the question was put to her: "What suggestion do you have for conservative sovereigntists?"

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At first, Ms. Marois shrugged off the question with a laugh.

Then she answered: "Let them choose.

"They have two conservative parties before them," she said, meaning the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec.

It was not the answer her advisers wanted to hear, as the PQ continues to lead in public opinion polls but is believed to be short of support for a majority government in the Sept. 4 election.

So after meeting with her advisers and shaking hands with voters in a Montreal restaurant, Ms. Marois held an impromptu news conference on the sidewalk and told reporters she had not properly heard the question put to her earlier.

"I truly did not understand the question. I thought you were asking me what federalist conservatives should do," she said.

"I have one thing to say to conservative sovereigntists. The Parti Québécois has always governed Quebec responsibly in its economic and social policies. …What I am telling conservative sovereigntists is that I will govern Quebec responsibly."

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It was the third time in less than a week that Ms. Marois was forced to backtrack on comments that created confusion within her own ranks.

First, she said that Quebeckers who fail to adequately speak French would be barred from seeking public office.

She later clarified her position, saying the ban excluded those already living in Quebec.

That incident was followed by more confusion on the issue of citizen-initiated referendums.

After saying earlier this year that a citizen-initiated referendum calling for a vote on sovereignty would be binding on a PQ government, she reversed that position during the campaign, saying that her hands would not be tied by such a demand.

Skepticism within sovereignist ranks will likely grow deeper after Ms. Marois was sideswiped by former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, who publicly endorsed the leader of another pro-sovereignty party.

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It was revealed on Saturday that Mr. Parizeau donated $200 to the campaign of Jean-Martin Aussant, leader of the newly founded separatist Option nationale party.

Mr. Aussant, along with Mr. Parizeau's wife Lisette Lapointe, was among the four who quit the PQ in June, 2011, expressing concerns over Ms. Marois' true desire to achieve political independence.

One candidate said there were serious concerns within the party that Ms. Marois' gaffes and divisions within sovereigntist ranks could hurt at the ballot box.

"I am worried because it is too close to call in several ridings. I am worried that at the end of the night we will be missing just one riding to be ahead of the right-wing federalist parties," said PQ candidate Jean-François Lisée.

François Legault, the CAQ Leader, said the comments by Ms. Marois highlight her party's inability to offer a clear alternative to the outgoing Liberal regime.

"Everyone who is looking for a change is welcome to vote for the Coalition Avenir Québec," he said.

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Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Jean Charest had other concerns to deal with. With his party trailing badly among francophone voters, he turned his attention to campaigning in areas of traditional strength, brushing off questions about whether his presence in stronghold ridings shows his desperation or whether he has given up on some places.

"You always have to be present in all the regions," Mr. Charest said.

"But time is the rarest currency in any campaign," he added. "We will hit as many regions as we can."

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