All political leaders face tests in Monday's by-elections

There could be some surprises in the three Quebec federal races

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Three federal by-elections don't usually amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but three in Quebec, and nowhere else next Monday, make for an interesting story with significant amounts at stake.

If you said to Stephen Harper, Stéphane Dion and Gilles Duceppe that each would win one, they would happily take it. In golfing terms, if you gave them each a gimme on this hole, they would gladly pick and move on to the next tee.

Harper's gimme would be in Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, Dion's in Outremont, and Duceppe's in Sainte-Hyacinthe-Bagot.

But this isn't a friendly match. It's tournament play. No gimmes. That's what makes it an interesting game, with a certain amount of leadership credibility at stake.

Consider Outremont, one of the legendary Liberal strongholds in the country. In the glory days of the Liberal dynasty, it was home to Quebec lieutenants Guy Favreau under Pearson, Marc Lalonde under Trudeau and, more recently, Jean Lapierre under Martin.

But it's also a bit of a Potemkin Village - think of Laurier Ave. as a street of false fronts. It wouldn't take much to knock it down. The Conservatives actually won Outremont in the free-trade election of 1988. And Lapierre, carrying the lethal legacy of the sponsorship scandal, won by only six points, 35 to 29 per cent, over the Bloc Québécois in 2006.

And the NDP, spoilers at 17 per cent in the general election, are genuine contenders in the byelection, with a household name candidate in Tom Mulcair, the former provincial Liberal environment who quit in the Mount Orford fiasco last year. He doesn't just have supporters, he has Kool-Aid drinkers.

He's more than competitive; he's in an authentic three-way race with the Bloc's Jean-Paul Gilson and Liberal Jocelyn Coulon, personally appointed by the party's leader, Stéphane Dion. To say that Dion is heavily invested in Coulon is to understate the case. Not only is Coulon the leader's hand-picked pony, he comes from the same professorial cohort as Dion at the Université de Montreal, which happens to be in the riding.

Coulon is very impressive, surprisingly personable and well- known from his foreign policy commentaries in the francophone media. But the Jewish community, 10 per cent of the vote and normally solidly Liberal, has issues over some of his writings on the Middle East. Then, Mulcair is a strong retail campaigner with two touchstones, the environment and NDP opposition to the mission in Afghanistan. This dynamic has created a competitive three-way race that the Bloc, Libs or Dippers could conceivably win, and that only Dion cannot afford to lose.

Among other reasons, the Liberals must hold Outremont because they are not even competitive in the two seats off the Island of Montreal, where they have switched roles with the Conservatives as the also-ran federalist party.

In both Roberval and Ste. Hyacinthe in 2006, the Liberal vote percentage was measured in single digits.

In Roberval, popular Bloc incumbent Michel Gauthier won by only eight points, 45 to 37 per cent in 2006. This time, the Bloc's Céline Houde is running against the Conservative's Denis Lebel, the former mayor of Roberval, who comes with two campaign machines, his own and Jean-Pierre Blackburn's. Blackburn is the new king of the North Shore, and Lebel is running on Harper's having delivered on his promises to Quebec. He's also running, du bon bord, on the government side.

In the early weeks of the campaign, the Bloc was virtually conceding this seat to the Conservatives. In the closing days, the Bloc says it has closed the gap, but both sides agree the Conservatives have the edge.

Ste. Hyacinthe, which the Bloc won by 32 points over the Conservatives, is the potential wild card. The Conservatives have a strong local candidate in Bernard Barré. Much of the riding is held provincially by the ADQ's Claude l'Ecuyer, and there's a natural affinity between the ADQ and the Conservatives. The Conservative brand might also benefit on the margins from the massive coverage of Brian Mulroney's memoirs, which have reminded Quebecers that the Liberals killed Meech Lake.

There's one more interesting sidebar question. Which party, if any, are Jean Charest and Mario Dumont supporting in these byelections? Dumont openly backed the Conservatives in 2006, and that was when he had nothing to back up his support. Now he's leader of the opposition and premier in waiting in Quebec. Charest has always encouraged Quebec Liberals to vote for the party with the best chance of beating the Bloc.

Off the island, that's his former party, the Conservatives.

On the island, that puts him with Coulon, and not with Mulcair, who left him on bad terms. Charest can live with that.

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