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Raymond Bachand, left, speaks as Pierre Moreau, centre, and Philippe Couillard look on during their English language PLQ leaders debate in Montreal Saturday, January 26, 2013.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Quebec Liberal leadership race has entered a critical stage with the beginning of the delegate selection process, creating tensions among the organizations of the three candidates and taking its toll on the caucus.

The candidate debates failed to generate much enthusiasm with the public and did little to boost party membership. In the Montreal riding of Marguerite-Bourgeois, a little more than 60 members showed up on Monday to elect the 24 delegates from this Liberal stronghold who will attend the March 17 convention.

A total of 3,000 delegates will be chosen in the 125 ridings over the next five weeks, and all three candidates – Philippe Couillard, Raymond Bachand and Pierre Moreau – are competing hard for their support.

Out of the five debates, only the English-language faceoff in Montreal on Jan. 26 produced any real hostility, when Mr. Bachand called into question the integrity of his main rival and the perceived front-runner in the race, Mr. Couillard.

"While we were fighting corruption and making laws and fighting tax evasion, what did you do? You were there partnering with Arthur Porter," Mr. Bachand said.

After he left politics, Mr. Couillard, a former Liberal health minister, became a business associate of Arthur Porter, who is currently under police investigation for fraud after allegedly mismanaging the multimillion-dollar McGill University Health Centre. Mr. Couillard has insisted that the private consulting firm he set up with Mr. Porter remained an empty shell and that his relationship with him was tenuous at best.

Normally, Mr. Bachand's attack would have been short-lived. But it coincided with the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption, where being found guilty by association was a daunting prospect for Liberals. Mr. Bachand's remarks about Mr. Couillard's association with Mr. Porter played into this public perception while angering many Liberals.

"It was such a low blow. I was shocked, really, really shocked," said Kathleen Veil, co-chair of the Couillard campaign as she arrived for a two-day caucus meeting to prepare for next week's opening of the winter-spring session at the National Assembly. "A lot of people saw it as a desperate gesture."

Interim leader Jean-Marc Fournier faces the difficult task of maintaining unity within his 50-member caucus, which is almost evenly split among the three candidates. The rivalry could create bitter divisions as Liberal caucus members spend the next few weeks fighting to deliver delegates from their ridings to the candidate they support.

"It is always a risk. Because after we have to rally everyone [behind the new leader]," said leadership contender Mr. Moreau.

Mr. Fournier stressed the need to remain focused on mounting an effective opposition when the National Assembly resumes sitting next Tuesday. He said the Liberals will vigorously oppose the Parti Québécois' new language bill, but offered to co-operate in adopting legislation to enable mining, oil and gas exploration as well as changes to the royalties regime on natural resources.

"They [the PQ government] should focus on developing hydro, mining and natural resources. They are separatists and they can talk all they want about that. But the real future is with the economy," Mr. Fournier said.

The Liberals insisted PQ policies were detrimental to regional development, pointing to Tuesday's decision to pull the plug on the construction of six small hydroelectric power plants of less than 50 megawatts as an example of poor economic planning.

The PQ government explained that Hydro Québec will have a surplus of hydroelectricity for several years to come, and that the cost of producing energy from small power plants outweighed the benefits.

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