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Politics French-language debates could be turning point for Liberals in Quebec

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau with his wife, Sophie Gregoire, at a campaign stop in Montreal on Tuesday.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ask Quebeckers about Justin Trudeau, and you sometimes get a dismissive wave of the hand, an insult about his father, or a smiling reference to one of his past gaffes.

The Liberal Leader and the Liberal Party of Canada have struggled to connect with voters in Quebec, a consequence of the sponsorship scandal, but also of a testy relationship with the nationalist elements of the province that Mr. Trudeau calls home.

If there is a turnaround to be had, it will start Thursday evening with the first of two French-language debates. Contrary to the three debates in English, the French-language debates will both be broadcast on major television networks in Quebec.

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Liberals are arguing that Quebeckers have mostly tuned out of the current election campaign to this point, but that Mr. Trudeau's message is slowly starting to break through. Liberal candidates said as they canvassed over the summer, a constant message was that Mr. Trudeau wasn't up to the job or didn't have what it took to lead the country.

"That's what we were hearing at the start," said Liberal candidate Pablo Rodriguez, who is running in the Montreal riding of Honoré-Mercier. "It has died down, we don't get that any more. The campaign has been going on for 52 days, and Mr. Trudeau has been talking about his plan for 52 days."

The NDP currently has a wide lead over its rivals in the province, but pollster Jean-Marc Léger said that "cracks are starting to appear" in the party's support.

He said Mr. Trudeau led the polls in Quebec for months after winning the Liberal leadership in 2013, adding that Quebeckers have not crossed out the possibility of coming back.

Mr. Léger said the main issue for a majority of Quebeckers is changing government, and that voters in the province are attracted to the party that can replace the Conservatives in Ottawa, whether it is the NDP or the Liberal Party.

"The winnability factor is the key in Quebec," Mr. Léger said. "People don't have anything against Mr. Trudeau, which means that the debates will be very important for him."

The Conservatives are aiming for targeted victories in the Quebec City area, and the Bloc Québécois is working on a comeback in the province's mostly francophone, rural regions.

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The Liberal Party, meanwhile, is hoping to return to power by stealing seats from the NDP on Montreal Island, in Laval to the north and Brossard to the south, and in western Quebec. At dissolution, the Liberals had only seven of the 75 seats in Quebec.

Liberals close to Mr. Trudeau acknowledge he has struggled among some segments of the Quebec electorate since the start of his political career in 2008. One Liberal candidate in the province said Quebeckers don't see Mr. Trudeau "as a Québécois, but rather as a Montrealer and a Canadian."

While perfectly bilingual, Mr. Trudeau sometimes struggles to deliver his message in French. He has key advisers who are anglophone, and he gives the impression at times that he is translating his statements on the spot during news conferences. Other times, he sounds as if he is repeating rehearsed lines, instead of speaking off the cuff or from the heart.

In this campaign, Mr. Trudeau is hoping to make a connection in Quebec by showcasing his love for culture and some of the province's key institutions.

The Liberal Leader was in Montreal on Tuesday to announce a Liberal government would boost the budget of CBC/Radio-Canada by $150-million a year, double the annual budget of the Canada Council for the Arts, and increase funding to Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board by $25-million a year.

"Culture is about who we are, and we have to be proud to share our culture," Mr. Trudeau said in French.

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He said if he doesn't win the next election, the Liberals would not prop up a Conservative minority government, once again making it clear his first goal is getting rid of the current Prime Minister.

"There are no circumstances in which I would support Stephen Harper to continue being Prime Minister of this country," Mr. Trudeau said.

He was less emphatic in reference to the NDP, stating Parliament can function in the context of a minority government and he is confident that Canadians will make the "right choice" on Oct. 19.

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