Wednesday's French-language leaders' debate raises an important question: Has Stephen Harper given up on Quebec?
Surprise: Instant polls by CROP for La Presse and Ipsos Reid for the Globe and Mail showed Stéphane Dion as the winner or in a tie with Gilles Duceppe. That's quite an accomplishment for the father of the Clarity Act. But it is a troubling sign of disapproval for the prime minister who once saw this province as the key to a Conservative majority.
The debate, with its congenial format, gave Dion a real chance to explain what distinguishes his centrist policies and philosophy from Stephen Harper's neo-conservative vision. Even though, as a good friend pointed out, he still mostly sounded the way he did when he debated fellow political scientist Guy Laforest, Dion gambled that voters could handle some serious content. Yesterday's poll results confirmed that many did.
On that central aspect of the debate, the contrast with the prime minister was startling. Playing his well-rehearsed new persona of the ultra-calm, soft- spoken father figure, Harper said little about his actual policies. He even fell back into his populist bent when he brought up those "well-subsidized galas" again. Didn't anyone tell him that this did not go over well in Quebec when he first said it last week?
Harper said little on the economy. Faced with the prospect of Canada feeling some pain from the U.S. financial crisis, Harper had one message: Don't worry, be happy. So the instant polls put him as the "loser" of the debate.
For Quebecers and Canadians who worry about their financial future, Harper had nothing to offer - no clear leadership to demonstrate. Dion's surprise "30-day plan" to protect the Canadian economy could expose Harper's philosophical reluctance toward strong state intervention at a time when even neo-con presidents George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy are begging for it.
Duceppe's good performance and clear anti-conservative message consolidated and perhaps strengthened support for the Bloc. And Dion's surprise approval rating at the French-language debate was music to the Bloc leader's ears.
With polls giving the Bloc an eight to 13 point lead over the Tories among francophones (Democraticspace.com projects 47 Bloc seats with the numbers it had at the start of this week), the possibility that the Liberals could rise a bit in the polls and split the federalist vote would help Duceppe elect even more MPs.
Harper can't be chastised for not foreseeing Dion's good performance - most analysts didn't, either. But given what he did know - that the Bloc leads in Quebec - his decision to remain so low profile in the French-language debate seems strange. He even offered nothing on the economy or arts funding and showed no openness to Jean Charest's demands for more "cultural sovereignty."
Harper's strategy was all the more surprising given that the informal "Anybody-but-Harper" movement is picking up speed in this province, while polls suggest that even some of his more visible ministers, such as Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Michael Fortier, face possible defeat.
The Conservatives haven't broken through in the middle-class 450 area, either. Although they started the campaign as a strong leader in the Quebec City region, a recent Axiome Marketing/ CHOI Radio X poll of central urban ridings showed a much closer battle, with 36.1 per cent for the Tories and 35.4 per cent for the Bloc. The tiny 4.5 per cent that the ideogically like-minded Action démocratique received last week in the Jean-Talon provincial by-election is another worrisome sign for the Tories.
With most polls showing a Conservative majority is still possible, but not a sure bet,it seems as if Harper is giving up on trying to woo Quebec voters and is setting his hopes instead on British Columbia and the 905 area in Ontario.
Has Stephen Harper given up on Quebec?
The prime minister's passive performance in the French debate raises eyebrows