Super Mario?

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The National Post, Thursday, March 15, 2007

At the beginning of the Quebec election campaign, when he was polling in the high teens, Mario Dumont's goal was to win a dozen seats and finally, in his fourth election, attain recognized party status for his Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) in the National Assembly.

In a best-case scenario -- with the Liberals stalled, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in a free fall and all the three-party splits breaking the ADQ's way -- Mario might in his dreams see himself becoming leader of the opposition, breaking his team in as a government in-waiting and becoming premier four years from now at age 40.

It could happen. Two weeks ago, a Leger marketing poll gave the Liberals a 36-29 lead over the PQ, with the ADQ at 26%. Then last week, a CROP poll put the Liberals at 33%, the PQ at 29% and the ADQ at 26%. And among francophone voters, the PQ led the ADQ by 32-31, with the Liberals trailing at 24%, which is getting to be a significant point spread for Charest to cover, even with the Liberals' vaunted ballot box bonus, a "discreet" francophone vote normally worth four points.

If Mario's polling numbers remain in the mid-20s, and the PQ remains below 30%, Dumont might get his fondest wish. (The ADQ could get more seats than the PQ even with a smaller share of the popular vote because of the more efficient distribution of Mario's vote, which, with the exception of Quebec City, is small-town and rural.) The PQ, below 30%, would be looking at its worst score since its first election under Rene Levesque in 1970, and reduction to third party status.

And what is the reason for Dumont's effortless rise in the polls? That's easy: PQ leader Andre Boisclair and his effortless drop in them over character issues. Asked who was running the best campaign by CROP, only 10% said Boisclair, or one PQ voter in three.

What does Mario have going for him? Name recognition--everyone calls him Mario. For unhappy PQ voters who can't bring themselves to vote Liberal, Mario is the perfect parking spot, someone who voted with them in the last referendum but, like them, is against holding another one. He's in a sweet spot.

Which is why nothing has stuck to him in the campaign. Not his inability to cost his promises. Not his being forced to fire two candidates for politically incorrect statements. Not his lack of a ground game -- in the blog world someone noted that 91 of his 125 candidates didn't even have official agents. Not his lack of money for a media buy, forcing him to rely entirely on earned TV coverage of his campaign. Not even his appearance on the wildly popular Tout le monde en parle Sunday night, when 1.8 million viewers saw the hosts roll out a blackboard with detailed costs of other parties' programs, and a blank slate beside his own. Dumont was unable to fill in the blanks. Many viewers thought it was an unfair setup by the producers.

And many were annoyed when Toronto Star journalist Chantal Hebert came out to promote her new book, and when asked what she thought about Mario, said he had no team and wasn't ready to be premier. Which is exactly right, but the voters have a funny way of deciding these things for themselves.

If new polls this weekend were to put Mario in second place in the popular vote, on the cusp of 30% or even across it, then anything could happen. At this point, he wouldn't need a ground game, his vote would deliver itself. You can look this up under Ontario, Bob Rae, 1990.

So why, with all the momentum breaking his way, with the need to prove his credibility and competence to be opposition leader, would Dumont pull the stupid stunt he did in Tuesday night's debate? In an exchange with Charest, he brandished a 2004 transport department memo warning of problems in Autoroute 19 overpasses, and blamed last September's tragic collapse of a Laval overpass on Charest.

Not only a cheap trick but a sleazy one. The memo was from the bowels of the bureaucracy, it was not for the minister, it never went to Cabinet, therefore it wasn't a "cabdoc" and Charest never saw it.

For weeks, the Liberals have been trying to get at Dumont's credibility without attacking him personally. Quite unexpectedly, he gave Charest a gift that proves two important points:

Pas d'equipe. Pas pret. No team. Not ready.

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