Three against one and Elizabeth May. Such is the dynamic expected to unfold during Thursday's French-language election debate as New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair is forced to deflect charges of saying one thing in Quebec and its opposite in English Canada, while the Green Party Leader tries to prove to indifferent Quebeckers that she deserves the time of day.
After abandoning the Bloc Québécois, their political home for almost two decades until 2011, a strong plurality of Quebeckers seems poised to stick with the NDP. It's not a love affair by any means. It's more a function of the Bloc's anachronistic raison d'être, a soft spot for the NDP's untainted (in Quebec) history and the tantalizingly real possibility of ending Conservative rule.
NDP support in Quebec has proved astonishingly resilient amid accusations that the party is a bicephalous beast with distinct personalities, and policies, in Quebec and the rest of Canada. It's not that Mr. Mulcair contradicts himself – he's usually equally evasive in both solitudes. It's that he seems to lead voters to different destinations depending on his own physical location.
In Quebec, Mr. Mulcair suggests an NDP government would set the environmental bar on approval of the Energy East pipeline unattainably high. Elsewhere, he suggests that a more rigorous environmental assessment process would actually work in Energy East's favour by reassuring Canadians that the pipeline meets the highest safety standards.
On the Clarity Act, the NDP Leader tells English media that he is in no rush to enact his party's promise to repeal the federal law that sets the terms – a clear majority, on a clear question – for recognizing a future referendum on Quebec sovereignty. But it took all of poor Peter Mansbridge's steely insistence to get Mr. Mulcair, Clintonesque in his parsing, to concede that he supports a 50-per-cent-plus-one majority as the threshold for a recognizing a Yes victory. Or sort of.
In English Canada, Mr. Mulcair says a lower threshold would discourage soft nationalists, many of whom voted Yes in 1995, from doing so again, since most don't really want to trigger separation. Yet, at its origin, the NDP's embrace of the 50-plus-one margin aimed to woo harder nationalists away from the Bloc by promising an NDP government would not arbitrarily bar the way to independence.
Earlier this week, Mr. Mulcair repeatedly refused to say whether he personally supports the right of Muslim women to cover their faces when they take the oath as Canadian citizens. "The courts take care of that," he insisted. Opposition to the niqab is higher in Quebec than anywhere else. On Wednesday, Mr. Mulcair course corrected by saying that women who wear the niqab should uncover their face to identify themselves, but that they can do so before taking the oath of citizenship.
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who opposed the former Parti Québécois government's attempt to prohibit public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, has seized on the niqab debate in a sad effort to revive what so far has been a failed comeback. An animated Bloc ad showing oil spewing from a conduit morphing into a black Muslim face covering warns that, if Mr. Mulcair is elected, "there's also a mighty big pipeline coming" as well as niqabs at citizenship ceremonies.
"The National Front has just joined the campaign," NDP spokesman Karl Bélanger tweeted, comparing the Bloc tactics to those of France's far right anti-immigrant party.
Thursday's debate, the first of two French-language encounters, may be Mr. Duceppe's last chance to kick-start his campaign. He has a track record as a dangerous debater, with a mother tongue advantage over his rivals, so he also faces high expectations. Both the Bloc and NDP leaders are pugilists by nature, but Mr. Duceppe comes off as more down to earth and authentic.
Mr. Mulcair's past odes to Margaret Thatcher, and prickly relations with his former provincial Liberal colleagues have been trotted out to discredit his social democratic bona fides and painted-on smile, so far to no end. Quebeckers seem not to care, or at least not enough to consider returning to the Bloc or abandoning the chance of sending Stephen Harper packing.
The Conservative Leader has perhaps the least at stake in the debate. His path to victory does not depend on gaining seats in Quebec, even if he'd clearly like to win some. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau does need to pick up seats in the province. He will hammer on the Clarity Act to win back English Montrealers from the NDP and woo francophones with promises of more money for Radio-Canada and the arts.
But that will all be secondary to the title bout.