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Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois speaks to the press at City Hall in Montreal on March 16, 2014.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Pauline Marois and Philippe Couillard are both working to shift away from the battle over sovereignty and national unity as they head into a crucial pivot point for the Quebec election – the leaders' debates.

Mr. Couillard, the Liberal Leader, insisted Sunday he will not rush to seek recognition for Quebec's "distinct character" after he earlier said he would seek support for a new constitutional deal from provincial premiers and federal party leaders. Mr. Couillard now says those meetings would concentrate on economic issues, not constitutional ones. "I'm running a campaign for the economy and employment," he said, brushing aside national-unity questions as "hypothetical."

The Parti Québécois Leader, Ms. Marois, accused her counterpart of a flip-flop even as she too tried to play down the talk of Quebec independence that has overwhelmed her campaign in the week since star candidate and media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau raised his fist and declared he wants a country.

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The election campaign will wind down temporarily this week as leaders retreat to prepare for their Thursday televised debate, an event half of Quebec voters say they will watch, according to a Léger Marketing poll produced for The Globe and Mail.

The poll showed the PQ's sudden aggressive promotion of independence was unpopular with voters and spurred a Liberal rise, making the race for the April 7 vote a close two-way contest. The poll showed 69 per cent of Quebeckers would prefer to discuss just about any other issue this campaign.

Ms. Marois said she always knew Mr. Péladeau would have a major impact on the campaign, but insisted his arrival has not harmed PQ fortunes. "I won't deny it, the arrival of Pierre Karl Péladeau has had a considerable impact. It's what we wanted and it's what we knew would happen. I wasn't naive," Ms. Marois said. "The message it sent is that big entrepreneurs are ready to make the leap into politics and bring their experience. And the fact he's a sovereigntist gives credibility to the option."

Ms. Marois met Sunday with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, a long-time Liberal federalist stalwart in Quebec who tried to avoid taking sides in the April 7 vote. But he did say he's not interested in an election that turns on the question of an independence referendum.

"There is no question of us embarking into an election on a referendum. I don't have time to get entangled in those questions, to be perfectly honest," Mr. Coderre said. "My flag is Montreal."

Ms. Marois was quick to agree, saying it was never her intention to campaign on pushing the referendum agenda. It's Mr. Couillard who started all the referendum talk, she said, setting aside the fact she spent much of last week musing about the future look of Quebec's borders, currency and passport.

Amid two dismal poll results last week that showed its support melting away to the Liberals, the Coalition Avenir Québec held one of the larger rallies of the campaign, drawing several hundred people to a suburb north of Montreal.

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Those suburbs along with the Quebec City region are considered the keys to determining who forms the government, whether a majority can be had, and whether the CAQ can muster enough support to hold the balance of power in a potential minority government.

CAQ Leader François Legault railed against recent PQ announcements doling out hundreds of millions in public funds for a cement factory and oil exploration on Anticosti Island. "She's acted irresponsibly. We will clean up this mess," Mr. Legault said.

Mr. Legault has long dismissed Quebec independence and Canadian constitutional debates as "old quarrels."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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