A loss in Outremont today would be bad news for Dion

It is possible the Liberals could go zero for three in today's by-elections

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The Gazette, Monday, September 17, 2007

The party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, Chrétien and Martin is now led by Stéphane Dion.

It's a proud political lineage, but also a demanding one for a Quebec leader of the Liberal Party. As a native son, Dion is expected to restore Liberal fortunes in Quebec, or at least make them competitive here again.

But if the Liberals were to go zero for three in today's by-elections in Quebec, that would a bad day for Dion, a very bad day at the opposition leader's office and a really bad day for his leadership.

The Liberals' worst fears for the by-elections, and their worst case scenario, could be realized tonight.

A UniMarketing poll for La Presse last Friday confirmed how much trouble the Liberals are in - trailing the NDP in Fortress Outremont, and not even competitive in Roberval-Lac-St.-Jean and Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot.

The poll was bad news for the Liberals off the island, and really bad news on the island of Montreal. It's a large sample of 1,000 voters in each riding, taken between Sunday and Wednesday last week, with a margin of error of only three percentage points.

In Roberval, as expected, the Conservatives lead the Bloc Québécois by six points, 43-37, with the Liberals out of it at 12 per cent. In Ste. Hyacinthe, the Conservatives have closed a 32-point spread from the 2006 election, but not by enough. The Bloc leads by 17 points, 49-32. The Liberals are in fifth place at five per cent. This is not a typo.

Outside Montreal, a great dynasty has been ground to dust.

It also is not Dion's fault. Off the island of Montreal, the Conservatives replaced the Liberals as the viable federalist alternative to the Bloc in the 2006 election, and have held that ground in the 50 ridings that will be key to Tory hopes for a majority in the next election. Whenever that comes, the Liberals will be also-rans in off-island Quebec. There is nothing new in these off-island numbers except for confirmation that under Dion, the Liberal vote isn't growing again.

But on the island, there might be a political upset in the centre of the city tonight.

The poll showed the NDP's Tom Mulcair leading Liberal Jocelyn Coulon by six points, 38-32, with the Bloc plummeting to a distant third place at 14 per cent and the Conservatives on life support at seven per cent.

Outremont is not just any seat, and Coulon is not just any candidate. For generations, Outremont has been home to Quebec lieutenants of the Liberal Party. And Coulon is the handpicked choice of Dion, who chased off Justin Trudeau, among others with their eye on this prize.

In fairness, the Liberals won this seat by only six points over the Bloc in 2006, when Jean Lapierre was Quebec lieutenant under Paul Martin. They took it with 35 per cent, to 29 per cent for the Bloc and 17 per cent for the NDP.

At 38 per cent in the poll, Mulcair's name recognition is clearly driving the NDP's startling growth, mostly at the expense of the Bloc.

But Coulon's problem, at 32 per cent, is that not only is he not growing, he's having great difficulty holding on to the Liberals' baseline vote.

Is Coulon the problem? Well, the Jewish community had some issues over some of his published commentaries on the Mideast, but he's worked hard to respond to their concerns. However, the Jewish vote is 10 per cent of the riding, and the Hassidic Jewish community votes en bloc.

But for a raw rookie - Coulon is straight out of the PoliSci faculty at Université de Montréal - he's shown real improvement at the retail game.

His problem is the party's problem - the leader has no coattails. And if he loses tonight, the emperor might have no clothes.

The Liberals have been in full panic mode since the middle of last week. They organized an airlift of party luminaries, including former Canadiens great Ken Dryden, to campaign for Coulon over the weekend. But Dryden stopped pucks. He's never stopped a trend.

The Liberals also have organized drivers and volunteers to come down from Ottawa to lend a hand today. In an email widely circulated among a mirthful political class, one party worker pleaded for volunteers, noting "being able to speak French is an asset, though not a necessity." Uh-huh.

Consider this: The NDP have only once won a Quebec seat, in a 1990 by-election. The Liberals have lost Outremont only once since the Second World War.

If there's a second time for everything, it will be big trouble for Dion.

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