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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.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Jean Charest is facing dissent inside the Liberal ranks with a senior party fundraiser  calling on his troops to vote for the Coalition Avenir Quebec to stop the separatist Parti Québécois from taking power.

Jean-Paul Boily said that Liberals need to vote strategically, convinced that Mr. Charest was headed for certain defeat in the Sept.4 election.

"If we continue to blindly follow our old allegiances, we will be in for a terrible surprise. We will get a PQ majority government, we will be back in our old constitutional quarrels, and we will be set back 30 years," Mr. Boily said in an interview.

"What I'm talking about is strategic and rational. I'm not asking Liberals to rip up their member cards. I'm asking them to do what they did in the last federal election when they voted NDP. I've been accused of trying to kill the Liberal party, but I put my country ahead of my political allegiances. If that's what it takes to prevent chaos, so be it."

Liberal leader Jean Charest dismissed Mr. Boily's call for Liberals to vote strategically in the sept. 4 election.

"I don't want to comment on Mr. Boily, Mr. Boily has his own personality," Mr. Charest said. "But voting for the CAQ will get the PQ in, that's the result he will get," Mr. Charest said.

Mr. Boily's comments follow those made last week by Robert Libman who urged Anglophone voters to support the CAQ. Mr. Charest insisted that that the call by Mr. Libman who was the leader of the former English-rights Equality party in the 1990's would have little impact on anglophone voters.

"The anglophone community will not vote to dismantle their school boards, nor will they vote for someone who is that unreliable on the future of Quebec."

Mr. Boily said federalists face a stark strategic choice in the election. "There is a block of voters who seem to be crystallized around PQ at 30 per cent. The Liberals and CAQ are pretty much tied. If we do nothing, the block of CAQ people will not go Liberal. They've already decided they want nothing to do with the Liberals. What I'm talking about is strategic and rational."

The stunning change of heart by Mr. Boily gives tonight's confrontation with Liberal leader Jean Charest added impetus to Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault who has been handed a strategic opportunity to increase his standing with federalist voters.

Whatever gains the upstart CAQ has achieved in the Quebec election campaign has been mainly at the expense of the Liberals. In order to maintain that momentum, Mr. Legault will need to showcase his leadership credentials and make his case that his party is a better alternative to the current frontrunner, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois.

Mr. Legault will call on more Liberals to defect in order to further push his message to disaffected federalists and angry Liberals that they have a credible alternative that rejects sovereignty.

"The Liberals are in a state of panic," remarked CAQ candidate Gérard Deltell who was once the leader of the now defunct Action démocratique du Québec party that merged with the CAQ earlier this year. "I hear it more and more on the hustings. Liberals are tired, they are embarrassed with Mr. Charest and his Liberal government and no longer recognize themselves in the Liberal party."

The CAQ needs to create the perception that despite being third in public opinion polls the party a wave of support was building behind Mr. Legault. Tonight's debate will serve to drive home that perception and at the same time put on display the recruitment of anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau to demonstrate that party was serious about eliminating corruption in government.

The PQ certainly appeared worried that Mr. Legault's strategy was succeeding. Ms. Marois didn't wait for her duel with Mr. Legault on Wednesday to reiterate her warning that the CAQ would bring chaos and social unrest to the province.

"It would be a threat to Quebec society should they be elected," Ms. Marois said as she set the stage for her confrontation with Mr. Legault on Wednesday.

For Mr. Charest this will be his third test in as many nights and there was no doubt that he needed to perform better than in last night's duel with Ms. Marois or Sunday's all candidates debate.

His aggressive and often confrontational approach has not served Mr. Charest well. Several viewers commenting in the social media contend that Mr. Charest will need to be more dignified if he hopes to stop the slide in Liberal supporters towards the CAQ.

Mr. Charest has responded by saying he will likely be more composed during tonight's debate. "I hope it unfolds in a more peaceful manner," Mr. Charest said. "We'll see."

When they accepted the one-on-one debate format the Liberals never expected that Mr. Charest would find himself in such a difficult situation. The party was confident that their leader's sharp debating skills would deflect whatever criticism thrown at him, especially on the issue of corruption and government integrity. They were probably too confident and now the party was scrambling.

By accepting the format the Liberals have given Mr. Legault more than what he bargained for when he launched his campaign less than a year after founding his political party. According to CAQ and PQ insiders, none of the parties questioned the potential impact these debates could have on their leader.

Mr. Legault performed well enough during the first leadership debate against the other party leaders. But now the pressure was on for him to do even better in his confrontation with Mr. Charest if he hopes to convince more federalists to come on board.

According to public opinion polls Mr. Legault's campaign has eroded a portion of the anglophone and ethnic votes that have traditionally supported the Liberals. Tonight's objective will be to reach out to francophone voters, those who will decide the CAQ's fate in the Sept 4 election.

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