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Jean Charest, left, and Pierre Poilievre shake hands following the Conservative Party of Canada English leadership debate in Edmonton on May 11.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Despite electing just a handful of Conservative MPs, Quebec has played a deciding role in recent Tory leadership campaigns. Both Andrew Scheer, in 2017, and Erin O’Toole, in 2020, successfully courted single-issue Tories in the province to win their respective leadership races. Mr. Scheer wooed Quebec dairy farmers, vowing to protect supply management; Mr. O’Toole solicited support from gun owners, promising to undo Liberal gun-control policies.

Now, as Conservatives prepare yet again to choose a new leader, Quebec could play kingmaker anew, with surprising results. While former premier Jean Charest’s political network in the province should make him the hands-down favourite among Quebec Tories, Pierre Poilievre is catching the same populist wave that has turned the formerly fledgling Parti conservateur du Québec (which is independent from its federal Conservative Party namesake) into a player on the provincial scene.

The sudden rise of the PCQ under former Quebec City talk-radio host Éric Duhaime has provided Mr. Poilievre with an identifiable base of supporters to target as he seeks to sign up new party members in advance of a June 3 deadline. The PCQ says its membership has gone from a few thousand to more than 50,000 in a matter of months, with the social-media presence to show for it. Some of the same voters attracted by Mr. Duhaime’s opposition to vaccine mandates and other intrusive government policies are showing up at Mr. Poilievre’s gatherings in the province.

With all 338 federal ridings having an equal number of votes in the leadership contest, regardless of membership totals, Quebec’s 78 ridings could again swing the race. Judging by their reactions, the more than 700 party members who made up the audience at Wednesday’s French-language leadership debate in Laval, Que., appeared to be evenly divided between Charest and Poilievre supporters. While that was a switch from the two English-language debates, where the audience was stacked with Poilievre supporters, it suggested the leadership contest in Quebec may not be the cakewalk Mr. Charest envisioned when he joined the race.

Luckily for the former Liberal premier and ex-federal Progressive Conservative leader, Mr. Charest has more than his vast political experience and network on his side. Seven of Quebec’s 10 Conservative MPs have endorsed Mr. Charest; only one is backing Mr. Poilievre.

During Wednesday’s debate, Mr. Poilievre was the main target of everyone else on stage. They went after his glib promises to make Canada “the freest country in the world” and fire Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem. And they took aim at his cryptocurrency fanaticism.

Brampton, Ont., Mayor Patrick Brown repeatedly took aim at Mr. Poilievre, albeit in sometimes uneven French, with nary a negative word for Mr. Charest. At times, it almost looked like Mr. Poilievre’s two main rivals were acting in cahoots.

Faced with this barrage, Mr. Poilievre appeared far less self-assured than he looked during the English debates, and it was not because French is his second language. The son of a francophone father from Saskatchewan, Mr. Poilievre is highly competent in French. But the air seemed to be escaping from his balloon on Wednesday evening.

The recent market plunge in cryptocurrencies, exposing their riskiness and volatility, has punched a gaping hole in Mr. Poilievre’s credibility. His supporters may like the idea of sacking Mr. Macklem until they realize the harsh monetary-policy medicine Mr. Poilievre seems to be advocating for would entail punishingly high interest rates.

Mr. Poilievre’s support for truckers protesting vaccine mandates might have struck a chord with a certain segment of Canadians fed up with pandemic lockdowns. But those same trucker blockades likely aggravated the supply-chain-related inflationary pressures Mr. Poilievre blames on the Bank of Canada. His crusade for economic freedom does not include dismantling supply management, which he explicitly vows to protect. The holes in his platform grow more gaping by the day.

No wonder he talked little about those promises during Wednesday’s debate and instead focused on attacking Mr. Charest, reminding voters of the political-financing scandal that dogged his provincial Liberal government and his private-sector work as a lawyer for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Those are vulnerabilities that Mr. Charest cannot wish away, and he needs to be more transparent in his responses to Mr. Poilievre’s attacks in order to win the trust of Conservatives and, eventually, Canadian voters.

Still, it was noticeable in Wednesday’s debate that none of the other candidates repeated Mr. Poilievre’s attacks on Mr. Charest. It increasingly seems that, unless Mr. Poilievre wins the leadership on the first ballot, he may not win it at all.

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