With only 10 days to go to the election, Premier Jean Charest is coming out of a bad week. Ironically, to get his smile back, he needs to see support for the Parti Quebecois go up between now and March 26.
Charest had one of his worst moments this week. A worker in Varennes admonished him in front of cameras for the hikes in Hydro rates and the lack of tax cuts. Looking the premier straight in the eye, he said, "You're better off not saying anything, it costs us money every time you do."
It was a throwback to that memorable encounter in 1985 between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and 63-year-old Solange Denis. Angry at Mulroney's plan not to index old age pensions, Denis told told the PM he'd lied to voters and delivered her final knockout: "It's goodbye, Charlie Brown."
Wednesday, Charest also upset many mayors from the regions - that's ADQ country - when he bailed out of their forum at the last minute. On Tuesday, Charest's discreet prime-ministerial style at the leaders' debate ended up looking drab.
With his jab on the Concorde overpass, Action democratique leader Mario Dumont continued to control the agenda for the campaign, the media and the other two leaders.
This is surely one of the biggest stories out of this surprising campaign: A 36-year-old leader of a third party, with no money and few resources, is the one calling the shots.
Heading for the last week of the campaign, Charest is said to count on two things to pull off a majority government: Stephen Harper's budget on Monday and hopes that a reasonable number of sovereignists, fearing a catastrophe for the PQ, will forget about voting ADQ to punish Boisclair and go home to the PQ.
But Charest's hopes that the federal budget will benefit only his Liberal Party is a risky bet. For one thing, the day after Monday's budget, Dumont will unveil his financial blueprint. It's true Dumont has been taking a lot of hits for waiting so long to cost his promises, but if he plays his cards right, and his blueprint is credible, that could keep him in the headlines for the first half of the crucial last stretch.
Which brings us back to Charest. Liberals are worried and wonder where his groove went. Last week, I wrote what a nightmare a minority government would be for Boisclair, with no referendum and Liberals getting a more popular leader.
But a minority would also be a worst-case scenario for the Liberals, as well for federalists in general. Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants a Liberal majority in Quebec when he calls a federal election. And with a Liberal minority, it would be the PQ who'd get a chance to pick a better leader.
While Boisclair is now calling in the PQ old guard to rally the troops, it wouldn't hurt Charest either to call in some of the old cavalry from the Bourassa era. They're solid, experienced and damned effective - men like former adviser Ronald Poupart, who was ousted from the premier's office at the beginning of this term, or Jean-Claude Rivest, one of the most astute strategists out there, or any of the Bourassa clan, would do just fine to help Charest refocus his campaign.
Charest's problem is that he aimed his campaign at Boisclair, but the target should have been Dumont. Charest had planned to polarize the campaign and present a choice between stability with him and a referendum with Boisclair.
The PQ leader's credibility on that issue was so shaky that the polarization didn't materialize fast enough. Added to Charest's own unpopularity, Dumont was able to squeeze in with his pro-region, pro-family, autonomist platform.
But if PQ support ends up increasing a few points while the ADQ goes down a bit, Charest would have a shot at a possible majority. Charest's biggest worry is that support for Mario could stay strong.