More Quebeckers changed their minds during the 2011 election campaign than did voters in any other region. Going into Thursday's French-language debate, signs emerged that Quebec could again hold big surprises. New polls showed a sudden softening of New Democratic support in the province.
Read about the debate: Mulcair gets aggressive in French-language debate
Faced with that slippage, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair embraced a more combative posture in the debate on Radio-Canada than he had in earlier English-language encounters, during which he mostly tried to look sympathetic and unthreatening. In French, Mr. Mulcair went on the attack.
He needed to. The backlash against a Federal Court decision recognizing the right of Muslim women to take the oath of citizenship in a niqab has dominated the campaign in Quebec this week, stoked by Conservative and Bloc Québécois attempts to exploit voters' antipathy toward religious accommodation. No one stood to lose more in this debate than Mr. Mulcair, whose party is seen as soft on identity issues, which are never far below the surface of Quebec politics.
The NDP Leader accused Stephen Harper of "trying to hide his record behind a niqab" to obscure the country's poor economic performance under the Conservatives. But it is not clear he did enough to reassure Quebeckers a New Democratic government would stand up for their values.
Mr. Harper's comment that requiring oath-takers to uncover their faces "is simple common sense" probably drew more nods in Quebec living rooms than Mr. Mulcair's charges of Tory economic mismanagement.
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe also likely struck a chord with voters by contending that he could hardly be accused of dividing Quebeckers, as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused him of doing, when more than 80 per cent of them support his position on the niqab. Even so, Mr. Duceppe was surprisingly tame during this part of the debate, as if his four-year absence from the daily sparring of the House of Commons had dulled his debating skills and passion.
He showed somewhat more fire during the exchanges about a future Quebec referendum and the threshold required to recognize a sovereigntist victory. And he had perhaps the best line of the night when he asked Mr. Mulcair whether "Tom ever talks to Thomas," in an attempt to underscore the NDP' s mixed messages on the Energy East pipeline, seeming more open to the project in the rest of Canada than in Quebec. His defence of Canadian military intervention against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which enjoys majority support in Quebec, also served to contrast with the NDP's promise to end Canada's participation in the mission.
Mr. Duceppe had a mother-tongue advantage over his rivals and milked it to great effect, allowing him to appear more natural and relatable than most of his rivals. But he blew an opportunity to appeal to Quebeckers' emotions – which used to be his strong suit – when he read his closing statement without much conviction. He will need to do much better in the second and final French debate, on Oct. 2, if he is to show Quebeckers he has any fight left in him.
Mr. Mulcair, always quick on his feet, demonstrated his impeccable French, despite the accent that betrayed his anglophone roots. Mr. Harper's French skills plateaued several years ago, but they were more than adequate to deliver his steady-as-she-goes, low tax, balanced budget message. It helped that the Conservative Leader seemed to be in a particularly buoyant mood and smiled more than the other leaders. That said, the economy seemed to play second fiddle in this debate.
As he did in August during the first English-language debate, Mr. Trudeau likely beat expectations, demonstrating a solid grasp of the issues, even if he tended to repeat himself more than his rivals. Mr. Trudeau's French often sounds jarring to the Québécois ear, which can make it harder for him to get his message across. As Concordia University political science professor Guy Lachapelle told the Montreal Gazette on Thursday: "His thoughts are not organized in a francophone way." But that did not appear to hinder him in Thursday's debate, and his passionate defence of national unity likely helped him consolidate Liberal support among hardline Quebec federalists. But it is doubtful he won over many fence sitters.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, whose French has improved markedly from previous campaigns, nevertheless struggled the most in her second language. But her mere presence was a victory of sorts, given her exclusion from other debates.
Mr. Mulcair likely needed a stronger debate performance to woo back the NDP defectors of recent days. He can only hope he did not inadvertently persuade others to join them.