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Marois has a headstart in Quebec parties’ race for conservative votes

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois waves from her campaign bus as she hits the campaign trail in Quebec on March 5, 2014.

RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This is a Quebec election that is turning on the province's small-c conservatives. The grumpy, middle-aged, middle-income man is the target voter.

In a province that many consider left-leaning, and where Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives are fourth, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has gained advantage by shifting right.

She's sliced away a big chunk of the more conservative-minded voters who once supported François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec in the last election. She'll devote much of her campaign to keeping them. Most of the action will be on the right.

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That's why Ms. Marois kicked off the election talking about the economy and, of course, the Charter of Quebec Values that would bar public servants from wearing religious symbols. That's why Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was talking about job losses and the deficit. That's why Mr. Legault stressed that his party would cut spending and taxes.

The major parties are competing for the same target voter: Middle-aged, middle-income, middle-class, and male. "We're talking about CAQ voters," said Jean-Marc Léger, president of polling firm Léger Marketing. They're the 35- to 44-year-old middle-income voters, raising families and trying to make ends meet, Mr. Léger said. They voted for Mr. Legault in 2012, but a lot of them have moved to Ms. Marois recently. That's why she's close to majority-level support.

Outside Quebec, many Canadians will watch this campaign to see if she will win that majority, and the ability to launch a sovereignty referendum. But the campaign kickoff was less about the old sovereigntist-federalist fault lines and more about that target voter.

Ms. Marois's party won only a weak minority mandate in 2012, with 32 per cent of the vote. For a while, it seemed like the PQ was trying to shore up its support left of centre, but then it realized where the votes were: Mr. Legault's CAQ won 27 per cent of the vote in 2012.

So the PQ moved ahead with the Charter of Quebec Values, a policy borrowed from the CAQ and the traditions of the CAQ's predecessor party, the Action Démocratique du Québec.

Then it started to shift economic policies, promoting development of natural resources and tabling a relatively austere budget that will eventually raise the fees for the province's $7-a-day daycare to $9. That was designed to appeal to those CAQ voters, many of whom see the government as bloated.

It worked. Youri Rivest, vice-president of polling firm CROP, said there was a group who were attracted to the PQ by the Charter: francophone, living in the regions outside Montreal, less educated on average, and heavily male. The PQ used to have more female supporters than men, but that's evened out as male CAQ supporters shifted to the PQ.

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Jean-Marc Léger, the president of rival pollster Léger Marketing, noted the impact. The PQ has risen five percentage points, to 37 per cent, in a Léger poll released Wednesday but among francophones, the PQ leads by more than 20 percentage points. That means the PQ is dominating ridings outside Montreal and Quebec City.

And there are still CAQ voters available. More than 70 per cent of Liberal and PQ supporters say they won't change their minds, but half of CAQ voters say they might. The remaining CAQ supporters are more likely to see the Liberals as their second choice.

Mr. Legault will fight to win back his supporters, of course, with an argument that he's the real thing: he promises to cut spending and raise taxes, thin down a bloated bureaucracy and improve the standard of living. Mr. Couillard is targeting them with an argument that the Liberals are better economic managers than the PQ.

And there is, Mr. Rivest said, a possibility that the target voters can still turn: the Charter has been the issue that moved those small-c conservatives lately, but economic issues, jobs, taxes, and the deficit, remain key concerns for those voters, and the campaign could change their mind again.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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