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Why the Quebec Liberal race is getting downright dirty

Raymond Bachand, left, speaks as Pierre Moreau, centre, and Philippe Couillard look on during their English-language debate of the Quebec Liberal leadership race in Montreal on Jan. 26, 2013. Mr. Bachand and Mr. Moreau are looking to Kathleen Wynne’s come-from-behind victory in the Ontario Liberal leadership race as a source of inspiration.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

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The debates are over, the delegates are chosen and with only a few days left before the Quebec Liberal party elects a new leader the race has become downright dirty.

A nasty mudslinging campaign is being waged this week against frontrunner Philippe Couillard in a last ditch effort to destroy his campaign.

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The attacks are mostly linked to his ties with Arthur Porter, the former director general of the McGill University Hospital Centre who faces criminal charges over the management of a billion-dollar mega-hospital construction project.

Just how close Mr. Couillard was to Mr. Porter remains a mystery to this day. It has been a subject of controversy throughout the race and was heating up even more in the final days leading up to Sunday's vote.

The two have known each other since 2003 when Mr. Couillard became Quebec health minister. The association appears to have grown closer after Mr. Couillard left politics in 2008. They were both appointed to the Privy Council and sat on the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the spy watchdog agency in Ottawa. They were on the board of the Canadian Royalties Mining Company and they even set up a consulting firm which according to Mr. Couillard remained an empty shell.

More information leaked to the news media this week point to an even closer friendship than what Mr. Couillard would prefer to acknowledge. The Couillard organizers appeared nervous about footage of the candidate and Mr. Porter giving a conference together at McGill University in October 2011. "Arthur and I have been very close friends since we first met in 2003," Mr. Couillard is heard saying on tape, which was broadcast by Radio-Canada on Monday.

Mr. Couillard later said that he had made a mistake during the taped conference. He insisted in a e-mail that he first met Mr. Porter in 2004. It was after Mr. Porter was named head of the MUHC.

His organizers were equally anxious about an exclusive photo of Mr. Porter and Mr. Couillard fly-fishing together in 2010 at an exclusive resort at the invitation of the New Brunswick government.

Even Mr. Couillard's wife was included in the recent attacks with allegations of a conflict of interest involving her ties with BPR engineering firm which obtained a hospital construction project contract when Mr. Couillard was in government.

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Mr. Couillard's organization is fighting back, arguing his friendship with Mr. Porter was never all that intimate and that the conflict of interest allegation was bogus. But the damage may already be done and organizers remained uncertain as to the impact the mudslinging may have on Mr. Couillard's chances of winning a first-ballot victory. They decided not to take any chances and have devised a Plan B.

If Mr. Couillard fails to win on the first vote by a slim margin, his organizers are trying to lock up just enough support to put him over the top on a second ballot. They've approached Liberal MNAs supporting the other two candidates, former ministers Raymond Bachand and Pierre Moreau, to lure their supporters on board for the second and final vote if one is needed. Regardless of the outcome, the nasty fight being waged in the backrooms will leave deep scars which may not heal in time for the next election expected within a year.

Liberals understand that theirs is a party immersed in allegations of corruption and collusion that cost them the last election. They are awaiting the outcome of the Charbonneau Commission to gauge whether it will further fuel that perception. The party can ill-afford a leader with a tainted past. But it can't afford either to elect a loser. And so far public opinion polls have shown Mr. Couillard as being the best candidate capable to win the next election.

That alone will weigh heavily on the minds of delegates come voting day on Sunday.

Rhéal Séguin is The Globe and Mail's legislative reporter in Quebec City.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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