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PQ Leader Pauline Marois, who leads most polls ons at a grocery store in Lachute, Que., on Friday, August 31, 2012.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Quebec's campaigning party leaders are now focusing on propelling their own supporters to cast ballots, knowing the result of an unpredictable election depends on it.

As the provincial election campaign heads into a last, long weekend, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois was in western Quebec, hoping to nick a pair of seats in a Liberal stronghold – ironically, by urging sovereigntists to the polls. Jean Charest, the Liberal Leader, made a last-gasp appeal for federalists to stop a referendum. And François Legault, Leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, insisted the Liberals are out of the running and only he can stop the PQ.

The leaders have run out of time to persuade people their policies are best. Their last-weekend messages are tactical voting appeals designed to win back a few former backers who have strayed, and especially, motivate their own supporters to vote. In modern low-turnout elections, getting your own supporters to actually cast a ballot is key to winning.

Ms. Marois's foray into Gatineau, Que., demonstrated her priorities. Western Quebec has for decades been a Quebec Liberal Party stronghold, but PQ strategists hope they can win two seats in the region. Instead of trying to play down her sovereigntist goal to appeal to disaffected federalists, she emphasized sovereignty.

"With a minority government, it would be very difficult to advance our sovereignty project at the pace I'd like," Ms. Marois told reporters during a campaign stop in the Hull section of Gatineau. Her party took out full-page ads in newspapers asking for a majority, and she told reporters she needs the mandate to advance more hard-line policies like toughening language laws.

The PQ hopes to win two West Quebec ridings, Hull and Papineau, long Liberal fiefs – but not because the party expects a great deal more support than the 32 or 33 per cent it won in those ridings in 2008. Rather, it's counting on the CAQ eating into Liberal support, and that, after nine years of Mr. Charest's government, disaffected Liberals won't vote.

On Friday, a new CROP poll in La Presse led to a headline Ms. Marois would enjoy – Marois On Track To Be Premier – but the results suggested she's heading toward a minority government. The poll found 32 per cent intend to vote for the PQ, 28 per cent for the CAQ, and 26 per cent for the Liberals.

But turnout can shake things up. Only 57 per cent of eligible voters did so in the 2008 election, a record low. With another low turnout like that, any leader who can get their vote out can defy the predictions.

That's why, even though the same CROP poll showed only 28 per cent of Quebeckers would vote for sovereignty in a referendum, Ms. Marois emphasized it – to try to win back sovereigntists who have splintered to smaller parties, and to get PQ supporters to vote.

For Mr. Charest, the poll showing low support for sovereignty offered one last toehold to return to an argument on which he has long relied: The PQ stands for division and a referendum.

The Liberal Leader, who has for some days concentrated attacks on the rising Mr. Legault, turned his guns on Ms. Marois, and her sovereignty goal – because he's betting his voters will be motivated to stop her. "It's a risk – a risk – that we will derail our prosperity for the obsession of Ms. Marois. Do we vote for the economy, or a referendum?" he said.

In fact, Mr. Charest used his party's traditional prowess as a get-out-the-vote machine as a last-ditch argument – insisting the CAQ is too weak on the ground in most regions to actually win seats. "It's impossible for the CAQ to win enough seats to become a force in the National Assembly," he said.

But Mr. Legault responded that the Liberals are already out of the running, because their support among francophone voters, who decide most ridings, is weak. "Mr. Charest is too far behind," he said. "The battle is between the Coalition and the PQ."

Mr. Legault, a former PQ minister, travelled in the Saguenay region on Friday, seeking to defy predictions the area's seats will go to the PQ. He is counting on the support of a coalition of sovereigntists and federalists, promising to "clean up" the province and arguing the PQ will revive battles of the past.

"There is only one choice for people who don't want a referendum, and that's the CAQ," he said.

Follow Campbell Clark on Twitter: @camrclarkOpens in a new window
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