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Pauline Marois walks past a group of housing protesters in Montreal during a campaign stop on Tuesday, March 18, 2014.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Taken aback by an unfavourable public opinion poll, the Parti Québécois has unleashed its strongest attack yet, warning voters of a return to unethical practices and corruption should the Liberals win the April 7 election.

The theme helped the PQ defeat Jean Charest's Liberals in 2012, and leader Pauline Marois returned to it on Tuesday after a poll showed the PQ trailing the Liberals for the first time in the campaign.

"It looks a lot like Mr. Charest's party," Ms. Marois said while campaigning in Montreal. "Do we want to return to what we had under Jean Charest: the same vision, the same team, the same problems of ethics?"

Ms. Marois was referring to a previous news report about Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard's one-time business partner Arthur Porter, former director-general of the McGill University Health Centre.

The report said that Dr. Porter, who is under police investigation for alleged misuse of public funds, failed to obtain proper authorization to set up a consulting firm with Mr. Couillard, a former provincial health minister.

The PQ leader also said Mr. Couillard negotiated a lucrative job with a private health firm before quitting as health minister and leaving politics in 2008.

Mr. Couillard denied being involved in wrongdoing through his ties with Dr. Porter, which have dogged him since last year's Liberal leadership race.

"I'm sick of it, and I won't tolerate it any more," Mr. Couillard said. "We knew each other. We talked about doing some consultation together. Luckily, it never happened. What he's accused of has nothing to do with me."

The PQ launched its offensive after a Crop poll in La Presse showed the Liberals leading with 39 per cent of popular support. The Parti Québécois trails at 36 per cent, with the Coalition Avenir Québec support collapsing to 13 per cent.

The survey indicated that two-thirds of Quebeckers do not want another referendum on sovereignty. The subject came to the forefront last week after billionaire media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau became a star candidate for the PQ and announced that his goal is to make Quebec a country. Soft-nationalists who had supported the CAQ may have returned to the Liberals in response.

A jump in support for the left-wing pro-sovereignty party Québec Solidaire to 10 per cent might indicate that Mr. Péladeau's high profile in business has undermined the PQ's social-democratic appeal.

The poll was conducted March 12 to 16 among 1,400 internet users representative of the province's demographic makeup. Because it was an online non-probability survey, the margin of error cannot be determined.

If the PQ was rattled by the poll, the Liberal campaign was buoyed. Mr. Couillard, who constantly repeats that he does not comment on polls, could not resist on Tuesday. "It mobilizes our team," he said. "All that tells me I have to carry on with our vision for Quebec. … We will not lower our level of intensity, on the contrary."

CAQ leader François Legault admitted he is in a salvage operation to preserve what he can of the 19 seats his party won in 2012.

"What worries me is that Quebeckers seem prepared to elect a Liberal government. How can we even think about re-electing the Liberals, who managed Quebec poorly and tolerated corruption," Mr. Legault said. "That is discouraging."

The PQ also attacked the Liberals' record of managing the economy after Mr. Couillard presented a financial plan on Tuesday that would balance the budget in 2015-2016.

As part of the PQ's economic team, Mr. Péladeau said the Liberal proposal to create jobs with more infrastructure programs would lead to higher debt and more corruption.

"They are proposing more asphalt and cement. This formula is outdated. And as Quebeckers know all too well it carries with it a heavy price in corruption," Mr. Péladeau said.

Integrity and corruption emerged as a potentially important theme heading into the third week of the campaign, which will include a televised leaders' debate on Thursday.