Quebec City - Between now and their November convention, the federal Liberals will have to decide whether Michael Ignatieff is the best thing that could happen to their party in Quebec or the most reckless apprentice sorcerer on the national scene.
Now that Ignatieff has used the Quebec Liberal leadership debate to firm up his promise to enshrine Quebec's status as a nation in the Constitution, there is little middle ground left between those two conflicting conclusions.
Either the Liberals believe, as Ignatieff insisted yesterday, that enshrining Quebec's national character is something that simply has to be done, regardless of the enormous difficulties involved. Or else they will have to agree with Bob Rae that the chances of success of such an enterprise are so slim that they are not worth the immense risk to the fabric of the federation.
In their hearts, there is nothing that most Quebec Liberals would like better than to campaign on Ignatieff's promise in the next federal election. For more than 20 years in Quebec, their party has been seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution to the definition of the province's place in the federation. Over that period, the federal Liberal party has virtually disappeared from francophone Quebec. In Quebec City, where the debate was held yesterday for instance, a measly 9 per cent of voters supported Paul Martin in the last election.
The enduring failure to arrive at some form of constitutional accommodation with Quebec has also fuelled the sovereignty movement and made impossible any attempt at comprehensive institutional reform at the national level.
But in their minds, the Liberals also have to consider, as Rae warned yesterday, that they could do little worse for themselves and for the federalist option in Quebec than to wade back across the constitutional minefield without the relative confidence that, this time, they and their project will make it to destination in one piece.
Rae, after all, was speaking from his own experience not as an opponent of constitutional accommodation, but as a passionate advocate of the concept of the distinct society at the time of the Meech and Charlottetown constitutional rounds.
Either way, Pierre Trudeau had cause to spin in his grave yesterday. His last political battle was the fight he waged and won against the distinct society clause. But now the three leading candidates in Quebec for the Liberal leadership, Stéphane Dion, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, all heartily support the concept that Quebecers form a distinct nation within Canada.
Going in to the debate, the campaign to succeed Martin was basically a three-way race between Dion, Rae and Ignatieff in Quebec. Yesterday's exchanges firmed up that configuration.
With his strongest debate performance to date, Rae probably did himself the most good. In Quebec, his campaign has had a boost from a recent Decima poll that showed that Ontarians would be more rather than less likely to vote Liberal if he became leader. In this province, Rae's perceived baggage as a defeated NDP premier of Ontario has weighed him down from the beginning.
As for the seven other candidates, they came as political tourists and left as such.
The difficult Conservative summer has done wonders for the morale of the federal Liberals in Quebec. Over that period, the Afghan mission, the failings of the Harper government on the environment and the Prime Minister's approach to the war in the Middle East have stalled the Conservative momentum in the province. That has many Liberals believing that they could come back sooner rather than later in Quebec.
But that also means that they are more than ever on the lookout for a leader who would hit the ground running and hold his own in French and in Quebec against Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper in a matter of months, not years.
In a party that had a paucity of qualified bilingual candidates, Gerard Kennedy or Scott Brison's French might pass although Ken Dryden's would not, even in those reduced circumstances. But in a party that offers a perfectly fluent trio of top-tier candidates, aspirants whose second language turns to gibberish under pressure simply don't make the grade.
Yesterday, the interpreters who worked behind the scenes of the Liberal debate should have collected a hardship bonus.