Performing in his last television debate this election year, Liberal Leader Jean Charest appeared calm and focused as he took it to François Legault, calling into question the CAQ Leader's sincerity and credibility.
Mr. Charest told viewers that Mr. Legault, a onetime Parti Québécois cabinet minister, lacked the political convictions to become premier of Quebec. In a sweeping attack on both Mr. Legault's newfound faith in Canadian unity and the billions in Coalition Avenir Quebec campaign promises, Mr. Charest struck a blow to his rival's leadership abilities.
"A sovereigntist who says he's going to vote "no" in a referendum is like a right-winger who says he's going to spend $4-billion [if elected]," Mr. Charest said. "Who are you going to send to Ottawa to negotiate on Quebec's behalf, a federalist or a sovereigtist? ... The man or woman who wants to become premier of Quebec must have convictions on this issue."
Lacking in experience and without the debating skills of his opponent, Mr. Legault insisted he had at heart the future of the Quebec nation.
"All of the candidates of the Coalition know we will never promote sovereignty," he said. "Never. It's very clear. Never. It's been 30 years that we are divided in Quebec. What we need is a nationalist government in the tradition of [the late Liberal premier] Jean Lesage. One who protects our culture and identity while promoting our economy. Your government is federalist at all cost."
This was an important test for Mr. Charest, who needed to stop support for the Liberal party bleeding to the CAQ, especially after appearing too aggressive in Monday's duel with PQ Leader Pauline Marois.
"You are so unreliable that you are doing exactly the opposite of what you said you would do," Mr. Charest said in accusing the CAQ Leader of laying unfounded allegations against former Liberal ministers.
Mr. Charest, however, faced dissent inside his own ranks after a senior party fundraiser, Jean-Paul Boily, called on Liberals to vote for the CAQ to stop the separatist PQ from taking power.
Mr. Boily said that Liberals need to vote strategically, convinced that Mr. Charest was headed for certain defeat in the Sept. 4 election.
"If we continue to blindly follow our old allegiances, we will be in for a terrible surprise. We will get a PQ majority government, we will be back in our old constitutional quarrels, and we will be set back 30 years," Mr. Boily said in an interview.
It was a huge setback for the Liberal Party and Mr. Charest used his debate with Mr. Legault to reassert his leadership credentials and reassure Liberal supporters.
But the corruption issue continued to haunt the Liberal Leader as Mr. Legault hit him with accusations of wrongdoings involving three past and present Liberal ministers and saying that they gave away government contracts in return for funds for the Liberal Party.
But Mr. Charest turned the tables on the CAQ Leader, chastising him for claiming political purity while resorting to questionable fundraising tactics and protecting a star candidate, anti-corruption crusader and ex-cop Jacques Duscheneau, from allegations of improper fundraising in a previous political life.
Mr. Duchesneau faced questions Tuesday about fundraising during his campaign for Montreal mayor in 1998. Radio-Canada reported allegations that Mr. Duchesneau didn't report all the funds he raised.
But then, Mr. Legault launched his offensive against Mr. Charest's perceived strong suit, the economy. "Mr. Charest, look me in the face and tell me there's no gains in efficiency to be made at Hydro-Québec," Mr. Legault asked. "In the next five years at Hydro-Québec, there are 6,000 employees who are going to take their retirement. We're saying 4,000 posts should be abolished. Nobody will lose their job."
Mr. Charest said the CAQ economic plan would lead to higher unemployment and create chaos for the Quebec economy. And, that Mr. Legault had accused Quebec's youth of being unproductive and of women being too cautious about seeking change.
"Mr. Legault, the list of people and institutions who you attack is getting long. The young are lazy, their parents are no good, when women go to work, it's not for money. Now it's Hydro-Québec," Mr. Charest said.
Tuesday's one-on-one encounter was more than just a debate for Mr. Charest: It was his final campaign appearance before a live audience of a million or more Quebec voters.
The next time Mr. Charest will face such a large audience will be on election night, when he either delivers a triumphant victory speech in his favourite role as the comeback kid or concedes defeat, and likely tenders his resignation.
These have been difficult days for Mr. Charest, who needed a conclusive win in his final debate after being outshone by fringe left-wing candidate Françoise David on Sunday and Ms. Marois on Monday.
On Wednesday, in the final duel between two leaders, Ms. Marois will have an opportunity to take a stab at Mr. Legault, whose potential appeal to francophone voters could pose a threat to the PQ's lead in the polls. A good performance would consolidate her position with nationalist voters. But a poor showing would hand the momentum over to the CAQ, allowing for a closer three-way race than anyone expected.
Polls have showed the Liberals languishing behind the front-running PQ, particularly with the francophone voters who decide elections. The PQ has unabashedly appealed to francophones with promises to crack down on English and minority religious symbols in public institutions.