The battle for Quebec

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National Post, Friday, February 1, 2008

There are many polls on federal voting intention in Quebec. But only two really matter --CROP and Leger Marketing.

A new CROP poll in La Presse on Wednesday sees the Bloc Quebecois at 36%, up five points since November, the Conservatives at 27%, down four points in two months, and the Liberals trailing at 20%, with the NDP at 13%.

The decline in Conservative voting intention can be partly attributed to slippage in satisfaction with the Harper government, down three points to 52%. Not a big deal, but enough to drop the Conservatives out of a tie with the Bloc.

And that's significant. It's always important in Quebec to look inside province-wide voting intention for regional breakouts. And when the Tories were tied with the Bloc, that meant they had moved well ahead in the area outside Montreal island, a crucial battleground of 50 seats that is key to Stephen Harper's hopes of graduating to a majority government at the next election.

It's very simple. There's Montreal, and there's the Rest of Quebec (ROQ). Montreal remains a Liberal stronghold, with the Liberals at 33% in the latest CROP, the Bloc at 27% and the Conservatives on the verge of becoming competitive at 20%.

Quebec City is a very different story. This is area 418, where the Conservatives made their big breakthrough in 2006. And here the Conservatives continue to dominate, with 42%, against 25% for the Bloc and only 12% for the Liberals.

In Quebec City, as in most of ROQ, the Conservatives have replaced the Liberals as the competitive alternative to the Bloc.

Among the province's French-speaking voters, the Bloc dominates at 43%, the Conservatives are at 27%, the NDP at 14% and the Liberals at 13%. The party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau and Chretien is currently in fourth place among francophone voters. This is a huge problem for Stephane Dion, not just in Quebec, where he clearly has no favourite-son standing, but equally in Ontario, where voters like to elect governments with a strong presence in Quebec.

Not to put too fine a point on it: The Liberals are irrelevant outside Montreal, right out of the game in that 50-seat battleground.

But Harper is also looking at challenges in courting francophone Quebecers. Outside the 418 region, the Bloc has moved well ahead again in ROQ. Harper's five Quebec ministers behave more like regional warlords than a co-ordinated team, and the Prime Minister's Office is chronically short of Quebecers in senior roles.

Both ministerial and PMO oversight are increasingly a problem in co-ordinating with Jean Charest's government in Quebec, with which Harper has some fence-mending to do.

Harper's special relationship with Charest may be just a memory of the PM's first year in office, but it's still in Harper's electoral interest to be on good terms. There is only one federalist political machine on the ground in Quebec, and it's the Big Red Machine controlled by Charest.

The Premier's position has always been that the Quebec Liberals should support the federalist party with the best chance of beating the Bloc. In the current context, that's the Liberals in Montreal and the Conservatives in ROQ. But if Charest is annoyed at Harper -- and he was quite annoyed at the PM's appearance with Mario Dumont in his riding before the holidays -- doing nothing for anyone becomes an option.

It was one thing for Harper to be hedging his bets between Charest and Dumont when Mario was on the rise. But the same CROP poll shows Charest's fortunes on the rebound in Quebec, while Dumont is in something of a free fall. Satisfaction with the Charest government is up to 51%, its highest level in the five years since it took office. Charest is now seen as the best man to be premier by 31% of voters, up 10 points since the summer, while Dumont has plummeted to 22%.

As long as Dumont was riding a wave, Harper could surf behind him. That's no longer the case. Now it's a question of who's got game--ground game. Dumont has pockets of organizational strength in the 418. But only Charest's Liberals have it everywhere.

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