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Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) leader Francois Legault (L) and Liberal leader Jean Charest talk before a Quebec leaders' debate in Montreal August 19, 2012. Quebec voters will go to the polls in a provincial election on September 4.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

With his political career on the line, Jean Charest mounted an aggressive charge against his political foes during Sunday's leaders' debate to deflect criticism of his government, particularly on the key issue of corruption.

And he used his experience as a talented debater to pressure Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois on the issue of sovereignty, accusing her of wanting to prepare a referendum as quickly as possible.

The PQ Leader insisted that if elected she would win back leverage for Quebec against Ottawa and confront Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

"I won't get on my knees like Mr. Charest has done and abandon the fight against Ottawa as [Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François] Legault has done," Ms. Marois said. "I will fight for the interests of Quebec."

Mr. Charest charged that the PQ's main objective will be to achieve sovereignty and hold a referendum "as quickly as possible. She has set up a committee to achieve it," he warned.

For the first time in a leaders' debate, another pro-sovereignty leader shared the stage with the PQ to underscore the contradiction in its referendum strategy. "What I can't understand is why you can't clearly commit to a public consultation to define how you plan on achieving sovereignty," said Québec Solidaire co-leader Françoise David to Ms. Marois.

Mr. Charest, who is facing his most challenging election after nine years in power – and 14 as party leader – defended the record of an unpopular government that has faced a barrage of allegations of corruption and collusion in the awarding of government contracts. He adopted an aggressive tone at key moments in the debate to push back on sharp attacks from his opponents.

Mr. Charest tried to neutralize the corruption issue by trying to paint his opponents with the same brush. He said a past inquiry that dates back to 2006 had found the PQ had acted illegally during party financing activities – and that Ms. Marois had received money from a teenager to help finance her leadership race.

Ms. Marois scorned the charges and demanded to know why the Premier had waited more than two years before calling for a public inquiry into corruption in the construction industry.

Mr. Charest also argued that he is best positioned among all the leaders to act as steward of the province's economy in the coming years.

But in this election, Mr. Charest not only faces his standard rival, the PQ – which is leading in the polls – but also the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, a fiscally conservative party led by Mr. Legault. The CAQ Leader is a former PQ minister trying to fill the void left by Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Quebec and offer a third way for voters tired of the two incumbent parties that have traded turns in power for the past 40 years. Mr. Charest has been losing support to the CAQ in recent polling among non-francophone voters, which spells serious trouble for the 54-year-old Premier.

Tagged with a reputation for being uncharismatic, Mr. Legault came into the debate looking to persuade Quebeckers he had the credibility and experience to lead a fledgling party into power and tackle the province's corruption and financial issues.

Mr. Legault early on acted as the main instigator in a frequently lively debate. He started with a blistering attack on Mr. Charest's economic record, which the Premier has argued is one of his strongest suits.

"As Quebec walks, the other provinces run," Mr. Legault said in the opening minutes of the debate. He argued that during Mr. Charest's tenure, Quebec had sunk from fourth to ninth among all provinces in disposable income per capita – behind only PEI.

Mr. Charest argued during a tense exchange that Quebec had bounced back from the 2008-09 recession more vigorously than Ontario, the United States and Europe, recuperating 200 per cent of the jobs the province lost during the downturn.

But those jobs, Mr. Legault claimed, were low-paying positions. "You didn't deliver the merchandise," Mr. Legault said, his voice rising.

But Mr. Charest had a zinger of his own, asking Mr. Legault if Quebeckers were richer today than when Mr. Legault's former party was in power. Caught off guard, Mr. Legault had to admit it was true.

Mr. Legault also came under attack from Ms. Marois, who said he had betrayed his ideals of achieving sovereignty and wouldn't adequately defend French language rights, while Mr. Charest reminded viewers of Mr. Legault's pro-sovereignty past.

But Mr. Legault said the PQ's interests were compromised by its association with labour organizations and that it was not free to act in the best interests of the middle class. "I could never forge an alliance with the corrupt Liberals or the PQ whose hands are tied to the unions," he said when asked if he would support a minority government.

Sunday's debate kicked off an unusual four-day stretch of debates that will also see the leaders of the three main parties face off one-on-one against each other in three separate debates.

The election remains very much up for grabs. No single issue has dominated the political discourse to date, while close to one in five voters remain undecided and one in two CAQ supporters have told pollsters they could change their mind by election day. Meanwhile, Ms. Marois has yet to release the PQ's detailed financial framework to explain how she plans to pay for the promises she has made since the campaign was launched on Aug. 1.

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