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PQ leader Pauline Marois, flanked by candidates Pierre Karl Peladeau, left, and Bernard Drainville reponds to a question during a news conference Friday, March 21, 2014 in Longueuil, Que.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Two weeks after pushing independence to the front of the Quebec election campaign, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois has retreated in haste, saying a referendum on sovereignty is no longer a priority for her.

Ms. Marois made her firmest attempt yet to shelve the independence question on Friday, 17 days into a faltering campaign that has covered little else. Ms. Marois started on March 5 with a commanding lead in the polls that has steadily ebbed and now shifted firmly to the Quebec Liberal Party.

"There will be no referendum as long as Quebeckers are not ready," Ms. Marois said the day after the first leadership debate, in which she made a strong showing but was pestered by her opponents over sovereignty. "It's not a priority for Quebeckers, and it's not a priority for me."

The attempt to put independence back in deep storage only added to the confusion over the question in PQ ranks.

While speaking to students in Montreal on Wednesday, PQ candidate and senior cabinet minister Jean-François Lisée expressed a wish to achieve sovereignty as soon as possible. On Friday, PQ candidate Linda Goupil said in a radio interview that if she had been told the party was going to hold a referendum in the next mandate, she would not have run.

Ms. Marois defended her candidates, especially Ms. Goupil, saying she is like most Quebeckers, and does not want a referendum soon.

"And since the holding of a referendum is not the object of this election, then we all agree," Ms. Marois said. "[Ms. Goupil] said she wasn't ready for one. A lot of Quebeckers aren't. And that suits me fine, since this election is not about holding a referendum."

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard called the contradictions in the PQ candidates' position "organized confusion."

"This is total confusion. The question is there. They can't escape it. They are the ones who put it on the table. It is a question about electing a government that will hold a referendum or electing a government for the economy and jobs," Mr. Couillard said while campaigning in Quebec City.

The downturn in PQ fortunes can be traced to March 9, when star candidate and media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau thrust his fist in the air and declared he wanted a country. Ms. Marois also played a role, spending the next week musing about the future look of an independent Quebec, from currency to borders and passports.

Increasingly dismal polls showed the PQ trailing the Liberals. Meanwhile, Mr. Couillard has relished reminding Quebeckers about the referendum threat.

Ms. Marois stopped short of a clear promise not to hold a referendum should her party win a majority government. "We will give ourselves the latitude to evaluate if there's a major movement and if they don't want one, we won't push them," Ms. Marois said.

As he did the rounds of morning talk shows, Mr. Couillard repeated what has become a mantra on his campaign bus: Quebec voters' choice on April 7 is a third referendum under the PQ or status quo under the Liberals.

The question dogs Ms. Marois because polls show a majority of Quebeckers do not want to hear about sovereignty and do not think a PQ win would give the party a mandate to hold a referendum.

The Liberals are hoping Thursday's debate will begin to consolidate support among those who do not want a referendum. Their strategy is to make it a ballot question that will polarize voters and allow them to maintain their lead for the rest of the campaign.

In her morning event in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, Ms. Marois was flanked by Mr. Péladeau and Bernard Drainville, who tried to help her turn the subject to the proposed charter of values, which would put limits on religious accommodation and ban religious symbols. However, they had little new to add.

Mr. Péladeau tried to play down his haste over independence and stressed the importance of the economy in his political involvement. "I've always been very demonstrative. It's my nature," he said of the fist pump from two weeks ago. "I have a deep engagement for the economy, and this was also the sign of that engagement."