All leaders have lots riding on tomorrow's debate

Charest has most to lose, Boisclair most to gain, and Dumont wins by just being there

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The Gazette, Monday, March 12, 2007

A leaders' debate puts the challengers on a level playing field with the incumbent. The challenge, in terms of measuring outcomes, is one of managing expectations.

Jean Charest, the incumbent, will be under fire from both Andre Boisclair and Mario Dumont in tomorrow night's two-hour debate.

As the most experienced debater in the group, Charest also comes in with the highest expectations, so he was low-balling going into the weekend, saying he expected to be on the defensive. The Liberals will also be spinning that their guy has a high regard for his opponents' abilities and expects a very competitive debate.

Dumont, as the leader of the third party, has the most to gain from the level playing field. Boisclair has the most to gain from a decent performance as measured against low expectations.

Such was the case in the 1988 federal leaders' debate, where John Turner won simply by showing up. Battered by an attempted leadership putsch in the middle of the campaign, Turner pulled it together in the debate and scored heavily when he told Brian Mulroney "I believe you have sold us out" to the United States on the free-trade agreement.

Similarly, Boisclair also bruised by a coup attempt in the Parti Quebecois, can win just by keeping it together for two hours.

Boisclair's strategic objective is to mobilize the PQ's base. And Charest handed him a gift last week with his initial comments, quickly corrected, about the possible partition of Quebec in the event of a Yes. Just as the prospect of another referendum wakes up Charest's base, so the spectre of partition could well help Boisclair call PQ voters home.

The loser in this scenario would be Dumont, who would be squeezed out by a re-polarization of the vote between federalists and sovereignists.

Dumont's achievement to this point in the campaign has been to break through the polarization, mostly at the expense of the PQ, to make this a competitive three-way race.

But he had a bad week going into the debate, having to fire one candidate for politically incorrect comments, and appearing beside another, at the launch of his justice platform, who just happened to have a criminal record. His team looked weak.

And since Dumont refused to cost his campaign promises, the Liberals on Friday put out a number for him, $6.5 billion a year, that would "plunge Quebec into a budgetary deficit," a place no one wants to go.

Later in the day, the Liberals also costed Dumont's proposed $5,000 baby bonus for a third child. The ADQ calculated an annual cost of $25 million based on 5,000 third births or adoptions. But the Liberals quickly cited Quebec statistics for 13,214 births in 2005, and came up with a figure of $65 million, excluding adoptions. Oops!

Simply put, the Liberals were carpet-bombing Dumont's credibility in the core area of competence.

The concerted Liberal attacks on Boisclair expose his weakness as a leader who stands alone, without a tested team of candidates, without a proven campaign staff, and without the financial resources to make a media buy for his television commercials.

But the debate is his best opportunity to consolidate his gains in the polls, gains which appear to be more a result of Boisclair's weakness than Dumont's strength.

Dumont's appeal is to voters of both federalist and separatist camps who are fed up with decades of polarization. Tarring Dumont as either a crypto-federalist or a crypto-separatist simply won't work. The voters know Mario, they know who he is, and they have a comfort level with his calling himself an "autonomist" seeking more powers for Quebec within Canada. This is a perfectly honourable position in Quebec's public discourse, going back to the Union Nationale, before the bleu vote was co-opted by the PQ.

Dumont's challenge tomorrow night is to defend the costs of his program, and hold his own on competence.

He can be sure that Charest will be coming after him on that, having set it up at the weekend.

As for Charest, who has the most to lose, his initial challenge is to "play goal" against the attacks of both his adversaries, and then take them on, Dumont on competence and Boisclair on his equivocations about another referendum.

When Boisclair said he saw no reason not to hold a fourth referendum after losing a third, he gave Charest a huge gift on the kind of uncertainty most Quebecers would not wish to live through once more, let alone twice more.

This could be the defining moment of the debate.

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