Quebec's incredible shrinking man

Every attempt by Dumont to gain traction has left him spinning his wheels

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National Post, Friday, November 21, 2008

Mario Dumont is Quebec's incredible shrinking man. Only a year-and-a-half ago, he rode a wave of conservative and rural dissent on identity issues to become opposition leader in a minority provincial legislature. But he badly failed the test as leader of a government-in-waiting, and he's paying the price in the current election campaign in which he's running a distant third in the polls.

What happened? Well, as Robert Bourassa often said, a week is a long time in politics, and a year is an eternity. In four sittings of the minority legislature over the last 18 months, Dumont misjudged every tactical opportunity, as between brinksmanship and cohabitation. He also failed to present his front bench as an alternative government to the Liberals. His Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) was strictly a one-man band.

In other words, he blew it. And as our mothers all used to tell us, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. It might be one thing for him to date your daughter, and even marry her, but quite another to get the keys to your family business.

But Dumont's failure of leadership hasn't occurred in a vacuum. The reversal of his fortunes can be measured in terms of the revival of Jean Charest's. Only a year ago, Charest was the least popular leader in the legislature, his government's satisfaction rate had reached a tipping point and the Liberals had fallen to third place in the polls.

Now, at mid-campaign, Charest is strongly positioned in the polls, while Dumont has fallen out of what is clearly a two-party race between the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois. An authoritative Leger Marketing poll on Wednesday had the Liberals in majority territory at 44%, the PQ at 33% and the ADQ at 15%. On the classic question of best premier, Charest is at 43%, Pauline Marois at 27% and Dumont at 13%. On the Liberals' preferred ballot question of who is best to lead Quebec through difficult economic times, Charest leads Marois by 52% to 26%, with Dumont at 10%. The government's satisfaction rate is very high at 59%.

All the trend lines of a year ago have been completely reversed. And every attempt by Dumont to gain traction in the first two weeks of the campaign has left him spinning his wheels.

First, he tried to recapture the identity issue, as he did on the reasonable accommoda -tion debate last year, by denouncing the new courses on ethics, religion and culture in Quebec schools as "a negation of Quebecois values." A province-wide chorus of editorial boos ensued. And voters immediately saw through Dumont's gambit for the ploy that it was.

On the economic crisis, with governments everywhere looking at stimulative measures, Dumont instead proposed a $1-billion spending cut. His proposal for raising cash by privatizing less than 10% of Hydro-Quebec was seen as badly timed in the face of current market conditions.

With nothing else working for him, Dumont tried a mea culpa. In his riding of Riviere-du-Loup last weekend, he admitted he'd made mistakes, and asked voters for a second chance. The next day, he went further, challenging his opponents to admit their mistakes, too.

And then, in a bizarre twist, Dumont announced on Tuesday that he wouldn't be accepting an invitation to Tout le monde en parle, a wildly popular Sunday night television interview show, saying he had been unfairly treated in the last campaign, while the producers had the fix in with Charest. The program is considered an obligatory stop on the Quebec campaign trail. Declining an invitation is the equivalent of refusing to appear on Saturday Night Live. In a race where

the voters aren't yet fully engaged, and where he desperately needs positives, Dumont is turning down an audience of 1.5 million viewers. The best advice to Dumont: That was then, this is now, get over it and do it.

There are only 17 days remaining until the election, and the good news for Dumont is that many voters haven't begun to pay serious attention yet. The phony war period of the campaign is coming to an end, and with the leaders' debate next Tuesday, the real campaign, a 13-day sprint, begins. It's Mario's last chance.

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