By his own admission, it was back in December that Premier Jean Charest tentatively circled March 26 – the date of the ninth anniversary of his decision to jump into the Quebec political arena – for an election.
With the National Assembly adjourned, he then had two full months to shower the province with good news announcements. As a bonus, a few weeks ago, the Parti Québécois engaged in a public, confidence-shattering leadership crisis.
Charest's pre-election plan was so seamlessly executed that by the time the election was finally called on Wednesday, two-thirds of Quebecers were convinced it would result in a Liberal victory. The first poll of the campaign has shed sobering light on that widespread assumption.
Done by CROP for La Presse, it shows the Liberals stalled in voting intentions. If an election had been held this week, André Boisclair would have won. But while the PQ is still in front, it, too, has failed to increase its support.
According to CROP, only the Action démocratique party is going into the campaign with momentum. Over the course of a single month, CROP has found that Mario Dumont's ADQ has gone up six points among francophone voters, moving from 16 per cent to 22 per cent, just five points behind the Liberals, who in turn trail the PQ by 12 points in crucial francophone territory.
It's early days and this is just one poll; chances are its fine print will be contradicted by other numbers. Still, it offers a glimpse at the wall Charest will have to scale if he is to remain premier. If the first 48 hours of the campaign are any indication, the federal budget that will be delivered a week before the election will not come a day too soon to instill a bit of life into the premier's stump speech.
The central theme of the Liberal campaign is continuity. Given that a solid majority of Quebecers are dissatisfied with Charest's first mandate, that does not lend itself to barn-burning rhetoric. Nor, it seems, does it draw hordes of believers.
On Wednesday night, only about 200 people, fewer than half the number that turned out for André Boisclair in Montreal, showed up for Charest's campaign kickoff in Sherbrooke.
Liberal aides were at a loss to account for the tepid showing; one suggested a flu epidemic had decimated local Liberal ranks.
Four years ago, a commanding ADQ lead in the pre-writ period melted into a poor third-place finish on election day. Since then, Dumont has struggled to survive to get this one, potentially last, kick at the election can.
If he were elected premier, he would be hard pressed to put together a solid cabinet. Many of his candidates are strictly sacrificial-lamb material. He would also not lack for kinks to iron out in his centre-right program.
But, in contrast with Boisclair who has yet to put forward a platform, Dumont at least sounds like he has a plan. Earlier this week, he grabbed headlines with a promise to give stay-at-home parents of preschoolers $5,200 a year.
By riding the uneasy perception in some Quebec quarters that the increasing diversity of the province poses a threat to the province's traditions, he has also staked out a controversial, but so far fertile, turf for his party.
Dumont is the leader Quebecers are most comfortable with. If they had to lend money to, or trust one of the leaders with, their children, he would be their first choice.
But Dumont is running for premier, not babysitter and, for now, the ADQ remains primarily a place for voters to park as they waver between what so many see as two lacklustre destinations.
Still, the combination of a premier whose past performance inspires little enthusiasm and a leader of the opposition who is widely seen as not ready for prime time, has produced improbable outcomes in the past.
Bob Rae, who surprised even himself by waking up as Ontario premier in 1990, benefited from a similar set of circumstances.
At the very least, this first poll should ensure that the election keep Quebec-watchers on the edge of their seats. Its outcome will be determined by unpredictable three-way races.
There is still the potential for the campaign to turn into a nail-biter.
One can only wonder, for instance, how Stephen Harper and Stéphane Dion would cope with a Quebec premier who is committed neither to federalism or sovereignty but to setting up an autonomous Quebec within Canada.
Charest is not a slam-dunk
First poll on voter intention shows Liberals have stalled while ADQ have made inroads in francophone strongholds