Quebec's Liberal Leader, Philippe Couillard, has played the federalist card early, and often. The arrival of Pierre Karl Péladeau in the campaign means he'll be playing it over and over again.
The Parti Québécois knew they were scoring a coup when they recruited Mr. Péladeau, the former chief executive of Quebecor. Suddenly, he'd give them new credibility on the economy – shoring up their weakness.
But Mr. Péladeau has also changed the script in other ways. He's got people talking about sovereignty. And that wasn't really the plan.
We know that because PQ Leader Pauline Marois started her campaign with low-key, low-bridges tactics. Her party, buoyed by the popularity of its Charter of Quebec Values, was out ahead, and just wanted to stay there. Ms. Marois's campaign was light on issues and especially of talk of sovereignty, or referendums. They just needed to be a little more solid on the issue at the top of Quebeckers' minds: the economy.
Mr. Péladeau was a boon on that score. Pollster Jean-Marc Léger, president of Léger Marketing, said Mr. Péladeau is popular, more so than any other business person in the province. The left dislikes him, and opinion is mixed in Montreal. But he's especially popular outside Montreal, where he's admired as a successful Quebecker, and where his efforts to bring an NHL team to Quebec City were liked.
And that's where the battle is – for the votes of middle-income francophones in ridings outside of Montreal.
But Mr. Péladeau's coming-out as a sovereigntist has also focused new attention on sovereignty – his declaration that he wants to help make Quebec a country, and speculation, on the front page of La Presse, that he might be Quebec's negotiator with Canada after a Yes win in a referendum. He's been cast as a key piece in the PQ's efforts to finally win sovereignty, and, by some, as a man whose real ambition is to lead an independent Quebec.
For Mr. Couillard, the Liberal Leader, that's a good thing. He was doing so poorly among Quebec's francophone voters that he needed the federalist card to catch up a little.
Usually, that's a tactic Liberal leaders save for later in the campaign, but he couldn't wait. He started the campaign behind, and for Mr. Couillard, preventing the PQ from winning a majority could be counted as a form of victory.
A poll released as the campaign began last week found that only 23 per cent of francophones supported the Liberals. Mr. Couillard began attacking the PQ for its sovereignty agenda to try to move that dial. After all, though half of Quebec francophones are sovereigntists, the other half aren't. The whole idea of a referendum campaign bothers a substantial portion of voters. Mr. Couillard's federalist attacks helped him gain a little among francophones.
Now, Mr. Péladeau has given him reason to double down of federalism. For one thing, he has to take some of the bloom off Mr. Péladeau's candidacy. But he can also use some of the new attention on sovereignty as an opportunity.
"Mr. Péladeau says he wants to destroy Canada," Mr. Couillard said Tuesday. "Those who think they can separate Quebec from Canada without destroying anything, are in a world of illusion."
It's an important opportunity for Mr. Couillard. In the rest of Canada, Quebec elections are battles between federalists and separatists, but for most Quebeckers, it's primarily a provincial election, about government. The PQ downplayed the whole idea of a referendum, so it was harder for Mr. Couillard to get traction when he attacked them for planning to hold one. Now, Mr. Péladeau has given the federalists-versus-sovereigntists battle a higher profile.
There's no doubt that in the short-term, his entry into the campaign has been a win for the PQ. Mr. Léger noted that Mr. Péladeau has been a high-impact candidate unlike any before him. There's been more media and public attention on Mr. Péladeau than on any issue. He is, Mr. Léger said, a "game-changer." He certainly offers the PQ hope of shoring up their perceived weakness on the economy. But he might also change discussion about sovereignty enough to give Mr. Couillard a weapon.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.