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Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois speaks to reporters following a Quebec provincial election leaders debate in Montreal, Thursday, March 27, 2014.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

With the Quebec Liberals leading in the polls, leader Philippe Couillard was on the hot seat during last night's debate. This is how the party leaders fared.

The Scold

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois offered a better performance Thursday night than she did in the last debate a week ago. A warning from the moderator, TVA news anchor Pierre Bruneau, might have unwittingly helped her. In the first part of the debate, Ms. Marois appeared to be taking the same belligerent tone as one week ago. During a segment Thursday where she kept interrupting Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, Mr. Bruneau threatened to turn off her microphone. Ms. Marois appeared to give a more statesmanlike performance thereafter.

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The Mud

The advance billing for this debate was that it would turn into a mud-slinging contest. It wasn't as bad as expected, but Philippe Couillard had difficulty keeping his boots clean. Mr. Couillard who already had to answer for criminal investigations into his Liberal Party's financing practices, seemed rattled when repeatedly and forcefully pressed on his choice to keep his earnings in an overseas bank while he was working in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Mr. Couillard did nothing wrong, but seems unable to forcefully make that point and put an end to the issue.

The Bare Knuckle Boxer

François Legault, the leader of the third party Coalition Avenir Québec, had little to lose and swung wildly at all comers. He probably scored the most points in the debate, but the real question is: Who did he harm more? On ethics, he was a constant burr in Mr. Couillard's side. On the question of a sovereignty referendum, he picked away at Ms. Marois, who is trying to walk an impossible line telling Quebeckers she will not call a referendum if they don't want one, while trying to reassure her base that she might.

What's Next

For 23 days, Mr. Couillard has had success getting Quebeckers to concentrate on the choice between Liberal status quo on Quebec independence, or a third referendum with the PQ. Ms. Marois is desperate to switch the conversation to the ethical questions still haunting the Liberals. The debate may have helped Ms. Marois get her way.

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