In a messy, unfinished backroom in Myriam Taschereau's campaign headquarters, the Conservative candidate for Quebec-Centre keeps an electoral map marked with polling data. Blue dots represent areas of Bloc Québécois support, orange ones Tory enclaves. The headquarters, located on winding Rue Saint-Vallier in Quebec City's Lower Town, sits in a sea of non-Tory blue.
In the 2006 federal election, the Conservatives won four of the Quebec City region's five seats. Only Quebec-Centre, held by Bloc MP Christiane Gagnon since 1993, evaded the government's grasp. Several city-wide polls conducted at the outset of the current campaign put the Conservatives well ahead in the provincial capital, and indicated that the city's one Bloc stronghold might fall to the Tories.
But with the party's momentum having stalled throughout the province, downtown Quebec City is no exception. The latest polls indicate that Ms. Taschereau is trailing by as many as 18 points. (The Liberals, NDP and the Green Party are tied in distant third.)
Pointing to the electoral map, Ms. Taschereau explains that Quebec-Centre can be roughly divided into three parts. The Upper Town is populated mostly by young, well-educated people - many of whom work in the cultural sector - as well as a significant portion of the city's elderly. The Lower Town is a cross-section of gentrified and lower-income elements. And Duberger-Les Saules is where home-owning middle-class families abound.
Upper Town and Lower Town, taken together, constitute downtown Quebec City, and voters there tend to choose the Bloc. Residents of Duberger-Les Saules, drawn to the Tories' family-focused platform, are Ms. Taschereau's base.
Ms. Gagnon credits her unanticipated dominance in the polls to a tension between Conservative policies and the values ascendant in the riding. "Many people in this riding are strongly against the Conservatives' right-wing orientation," she says. "They don't agree with their ideas on the environment, social housing, abortion, the arts, young offenders …"
Ms. Taschereau denies that her political problem is the party's policies, suggesting instead that her biggest obstacle is the way those policies are portrayed in the media. "Our ideas are distorted by the French press," she complains. "We don't have the same exposure, and when we do get attention, it's always negative. When we get to explain these policies, people agree with us."
Ms. Taschereau became embroiled in controversy early in the campaign when the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil quoted her as saying that "artists are spoiled." Although she says she was misquoted, the damage was done: Ms. Taschereau has become a symbol of the Conservative government's $45-million arts cuts, so unpopular in the province generally and Quebec-Centre specifically. (The same newspaper also reported that the candidate is the granddaughter of former Quebec Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, though she is only a distant relative.)
Guy Laforest, a professor of political science at Laval University, is less certain that Conservative blame should rest with the media. Mr. Laforest, who ran for the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec in the 2003 provincial election and was until recently a Conservative supporter, contends that the party did itself a disservice in Quebec by - among other things - failing to put its candidates in public view.
"Conservative candidates have not been doing a lot of talking, but people want their candidates to talk," he says. "Perhaps this was part of the party's greater communications strategy: Mr. Harper talks and no one else does.
"They have run a terrible campaign here," Mr. Laforest continues. "The Conservatives had an opportunity to use Quebec City as a beachhead to decimate the Bloc in Quebec, and use it to establish themselves as Canada's natural governing party. They blew it."
In addition to candidates' inconspicuousness, he argues that the Conservatives let Quebeckers down by failing to update and elaborate on their concept of open federalism, which had been outlined in the previous campaign.
Driving in a cramped car overstuffed with dog-related paraphernalia, Ms. Taschereau and one of her staffers work out an alternate route to Le Faubourg Jos Villeneuve, a senior citizens' residence. (Their original course was blocked by a pavement truck.) She's scheduled a campaign stop at the residence despite having slipped on a flight of stairs the previous day while walking her cocker spaniel, winding up in hospital after being knocked unconscious. The painkillers she was prescribed have left her a little spacey, she says, but not unable to continue her campaign.
Inside the residence, Ms. Taschereau is composed and tender with the residents. She's received warmly ("The Conservatives? Perfect!" one resident exclaims; "You're the first candidate we've seen yet," says another), though the most commonly expressed voting intention is to not vote at all.
Ms. Taschereau approaches a table of five women - some with walkers, others in wheelchairs - and begins to introduce herself. She might be prepared to argue that, unlike the Conservatives, the Bloc's outsider status means "they can never do anything for anyone," or to say "how sad it is that Quebec-Centre is the one riding in Quebec that doesn't have a voice in Ottawa." But before she can get to it, she's interrupted.
"I can't hear you," one of the women says. So Ms. Taschereau begins again, attempting to communicate a message that few in Quebec-Centre seem to be hearing.
Special to The Globe and Mail