The Kid comes back

Charest is poised to make history by winning three Quebec elections in a row

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The Gazette, Saturday, December 6, 2008

Jean Charest, who a year and a half ago seemed destined to become history, stands on the threshold of making history.

No Quebec premier since Maurice Duplessis has won three elections in a row, but Charest is only two days away from doing just that. Jean Lesage and Robert Bourassa, René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard, are all leading members of the premiers' hall of fame. None of them won three in a row.

"I feel very confident about Monday," Premier Charest was saying from his campaign bus in Quebec City yesterday. "I'm trying to avoid tempting history. But I like the sound of that."

He has every reason to feel confident. All the polls, including today's Léger Marketing survey for The Gazette and Quebecor media outlets, put Charest's Liberals clearly in majority territory, with the Parti Québécois in a competitive second place and Mario Dumont's ADQ on the verge of being reduced to a handful of seats in the 125-member National Assembly. The magic number is 63, and in all the seat models, Charest is poised to regain the majority he lost in March 2007, when voters returned him at the head of a shaky minority government.

What has happened since then is a two-part narrative - one part is the political redemption of Charest, the other is the utter failure of Dumont to seize the opportunity, as leader of the opposition, to present himself and his team as a government in waiting.

It wasn't just that Charest nearly lost the last election. What astonished even his closest friends was that Charest, the most gifted campaigner of his generation, failed to show up for the campaign.

That hasn't been the case this time. "This has been my best campaign in a very long time," he said. "I feel good about what we've been fighting for. I'm very happy with our campaign. We have been very steady in defining the issues, and very good at staying on message. I didn't have to say that to anyone on our team. It just showed."

Has it ever. Charest has breezed through the month-long campaign like the natural he is. In his early days in federal politics in his 20s, he was known as "the Kid." Now, at 50, concluding what might well be his last campaign, the Kid is back. His speeches have been sharp, his meetings has been well attended, and the renowned Big Red Machine has put on a near flawless tour. The fact that the campaign has been uneventful, boring as the rain, has also worked for Charest.

His ballot question is simple - the economy, and who should run it in a crisis. He began from several advantages, all of which have been reinforced by the way the campaign has played out. First, on the question of best premier, Charest leads by a wide margin over Pauline Marois and Dumont. He also enjoys a huge lead on questions like which leader is the most competent, has the best character, and the best vision for Quebec. Then there is the Liberal brand. The Liberals have unique brand equity with voters as managers of the economy, particularly in the coming storm. They are also seen as having the best team, and the best platform.

Quebecers didn't want this election - three voters in four were annoyed at Charest for calling it. Unless he forced his preferred ballot question, it could very easily have got away from him. It could have become about waiting times in the health-care system. Both Marois and Dumont tried very hard to make it about the losses of the Caisse de Dépôt since the stock market crashed in September. Dumont tried to revive the identity issue, which worked so well for him on reasonable accommodation last year, around the teaching of religious ethics and cultural courses rather than religion in Quebec schools. A negation of Quebecois values, he said. This time, there were no buyers, only buyers' remorse from the last time.

"Imagine," Charest scoffs at the thought of making a campaign about "whether we'll allow Christmas trees in schools."

Only at the leaders' debate did Charest underperform relative to inflated expectations, while both Marois and Dumont exceeded theirs. Marois proved surprisingly engaged, while Dumont had the best manners, the only one at the table not interrupting or shouting to make himself heard. For a brief moment, he reminded voters that they had liked him well enough as a suitor for their daughter, though not as someone to run the family business in a downturn. For the only time in the campaign, Charest went off message - keep smiling, be premier. The debater and the Irish in him got the better of him. He was too hot. But there were no defining moments in the debate, and three days later, it was barely a memory.

The tumultuous events of the last week in Ottawa worked at first in Charest's favour. First of all, the crisis in Parliament knocked the provincial campaign completely off the front page, and practically out of the first section of the papers. Whatever closing arguments Marois and Dumont were making, no one was hearing them over the noise from Ottawa.

And then the chaos swirling in Ottawa's minority House - so soon after an election and in the face of the economic crisis - only reinforced Charest's message about the dangers of having "three hands on the wheel."

"What's been going on in Ottawa," says Charest, "is reason enough reason for Quebecers to ask themselves, if this is what they get with minority government, then they don't want it."

The later turn of events in Ottawa this week, with Stephen Harper playing the separatist card against the opposition coalition, worked effectively for the prime minister in English Canada, but could have blown up into a more volatile campaign in Quebec. A political crisis could have become a unity crisis, on the historic fault line of Confederation. If it has helped the PQ campaign, it appears to be only on the margins, too little, too late.

Charest is careful in choosing his words about Harper raising the stakes against "the separatist coalition."

"We all understand that the rhetoric in Ottawa this week was circumstantial," he says. "The important thing about Quebec and Canada is that we live in a country where we have this debate and live peaceably. We respect one another's opinions. That's why I want to live here."

As for the next few days, he says, "I'm looking forward to Monday, and then getting back to work, and getting on with the job, on Tuesday."

For Monday, Charest should enjoy his moment of history. Not only is he about to make it, but he has earned it.

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