Final debates have new dynamics

Élections 2006

Between the first and this week's final set of election debates, Liberal Leader Paul Martin lost his monopoly on the unity card. That cost him his lead in voting intentions in the Jan. 23 election. And that means that the dynamics of this week's debates will be starkly different from those held in Vancouver in December.
A lot more voters will be watching. A recent string of polls showing the Conservatives in the lead for the first time in the campaign guarantee that the ratings for this particular set of debates will be high.
All eyes will be on Stephen Harper. That will make it more difficult for the NDP's Jack Layton to compete for votes and attention.
As the unexpected and controversial front-runner in the campaign, the Conservative leader will very much be on trial. In similar circumstances 17 months ago, the popular verdict was negative and Harper's campaign went into a tailspin.
Over the past two years, Martin has performed best with his back to the wall, snatching victories out of the jaws of fatal election and parliamentary defeats.
That is exactly where he is at this particular juncture. But so far, adversity has all but galvanized the Liberal campaign. It is as if Martin's braintrust has run out of fresh ideas. Meanwhile some of the old ones no longer work as well as they did even a month ago.
In the last set of debates, Martin scored the most points in English, with an emotional charge against Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe on sovereignty.
Against the backdrop of polls that show the Conservatives on the verge of overtaking the Liberals in Quebec, it will be harder this time for Martin to position himself as the natural unity champion in either language.
For the first time since the advent of the Bloc Québécois, a federal leader from outside the province will be more than just an extra on the set of the French-language debate tomorrow night.
The upswing in Conservative fortunes in Quebec is only a mystery to those who keep missing the point that the strongest political idea on the Quebec market has never been sovereignty but rather the long-held dream of a federalism more accommodating of the province's aspirations.
The sheer prospect of changes to federalism has carried the day for Canada in two referendums. The same notion brought Brian Mulroney to power in 1984 and kept him there in 1988.
At one time, the sense that Jean Charest and, later, Paul Martin had the political capital and the will to reconcile Quebecers' aspirations to those of the rest of Canada brought each of them to the top of the popularity charts in Quebec.
In the same spirit, Quebecers always held more of a grudge against Jean Chrétien for his role in the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the patriation of the Constitution than for his efforts to put spokes in the sovereignist wheel with the clarity act on Quebec secession.
In this campaign, new hopes for a different form of federalism are fuelling the rise of the Conservatives in Quebec. In a way, Harper is pulling the fat out of a fire of Martin's own making.
The Liberals set out early on to turn the federal campaign in Quebec into a unity plebiscite. Martin wanted to present Quebecers with a looming referendum impasse the better to force federalists to rally behind his party.
But he seems to have only managed to focus Quebec minds on finding an alternative to both the Liberals and the Bloc.
And that, frankly is a less dangerous outcome for Canada than the historical victory that Martin was poised to hand sovereignists on a silver platter with his poorly executed Quebec strategy.

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