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Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard walks to a news conference Wednesday, March 19, 2014 in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The leaders competing to be premier of Quebec are retreating to prepare for Thursday's leadership debate, but not before firing off some advance warning shots.

The Parti Québécois has attacked Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard in recent days for some of his dealings when he was outside of politics, particularly his brief association with Arthur Porter, the former head of the McGill University Health Centre, who faces criminal charges over an alleged $22-million fraud, money laundering and kickback scheme.

Before the allegations came to light, Mr. Couillard, who was in the private sector, planned to start a consulting business with Dr. Porter. Mr. Couillard has never been accused of wrongdoing, but PQ Leader Pauline Marois has accused the Liberal leader of using bad judgment in his association.

Mr. Couillard warned that if Ms. Marois plans to attack him in the debate for once being Dr. Porter's friend and potential business partner, he will be happy to ask Ms. Marois about a 2009 wiretap that caught a union leader bragging about his close ties to the PQ leader, and his plans to attempt to influence her through business dealings with her husband.

There's no evidence influence peddling ever took place, but Mr. Couillard said if Ms. Marois "wants to throw around some mud" he's prepared to throw some back.

"I'm a lot tougher than people think," Mr. Couillard said. "Mud does not interest me. But if Madame Marois wants to go there, she'll taste it too."

Polls have shown a tight race for the April 7 vote, with Liberal fortunes rising since the election was called and the PQ opening with an aggressive call for the pursuit of Quebec independence. The party has since tried to shift away from the separatist agenda. On Wednesday, the party sent candidate Bernard Drainville to the fore to argue in favour of the Charter of Values his party has proposed to crack down on religious minority demands for accommodation and impose a dress code to limit religious dress in the public service.

Ms. Marois, who spoke briefly to reporters as she went into private debate preparations, said she's not interested in a fight.

"On the contrary, I would like to have a respectful dialog," she said. "Naturally we have a few questions we'd like to ask."

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault was clearly planning to join the PQ in making the Liberals his main target. Talk of a sovereignty referendum has allowed Liberals to siphon off support from the CAQ, putting the party's existence in jeopardy.

"My job is to convince Quebeckers to get away from the old quarrels," Mr. Legault said. "I'm anxious to see if Mr. Couillard has done his homework, to challenge him on some of his flip flops in recent months."

Québec Solidaire's Françoise David rounds out the roster of four leaders joining in the debate. Her party has had some success winning left-wing support from the PQ in Montreal.