With a provincial election call possibly a week away, the Liberals have pulled farther ahead of the Parti Quebecois while the Action democratique du Quebec party's support may be slipping, a new Gazette poll shows.
And the environment has shot up to second in Quebecers' ranking of top election issues, the poll indicates.
The survey, conducted between Feb. 7 and 10 by Leger Marketing and made public today, indicates support for Jean Charest's Liberals was at 36 per cent, up from 34 per cent in a Leger poll two weeks earlier.
Andre Boisclair's PQ was at 31 per cent, down from 32 per cent. Mario Dumont's ADQ was at 21 per cent, down from 24 per cent.
Leger surveyed 1,000 Quebecers for the poll, commissioned by The Gazette, Le Journal de Montreal and French-language television network TVA.
Quebecers could be going to the polls as soon as late March, with signs indicating Charest might call the election after his government tables the provincial budget next week.
Despite the Liberals' lead, an election would still be a tossup, pollster Jean-Marc Leger said.
"This is enough for Charest to feel comfortable to call the election, but it's not enough to win. If we had an election today, it would be impossible to predict who would win," he said. "Anything can happen."
The unpredictability is being fuelled by several factors:
Liberals remain far behind the PQ among francophones, a crucial electorate because their votes are spread across Quebec, while non-francophones, who tend to vote Liberal, are concentrated in Montreal. Francophones decide the vote in 80 of Quebec's 125 ridings.
Among francophones, Boisclair was supported by 36 per cent of respondents and Charest by 28 per cent. Dumont was at 22 per cent. To win, the Liberals would have to be supported by 35 per cent of francophones, Leger said.
The ADQ and two other smaller parties - Quebec solidaire and the Green Party - are splitting the vote. The latter two each garnered five per cent in the latest Leger poll.
Many close regional two-way battles are expected. Quebec City: Liberal vs. ADQ. Eastern Quebec: Liberal vs. PQ. The south shore of Quebec City, the Beauce and Mauricie-Bois Francs: PQ vs. ADQ.
The increase in Liberal support is within the margin of error. For a poll this size, the margin is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Some other key poll findings:
Health care remains the No. 1 issue for voters, with 34 per cent saying it will be the top election issue.
But 21 per cent picked the environment, which is now voters' second most important election concern, surpassing two other traditional top issues - the economy and education.
Charest scored points on the environment issue yesterday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced $350 million in funding for Quebec climate-change projects. But Charest might be hobbled by dissatisfaction over his government's decision to sell part of Mount Orford provincial park to a private condo developer.
In the 2003 vote, the environment was in fifth place.
Reasonable accommodation for immigrants was far down the list, with only six per cent saying it would be the top issue.
Respondents said Boisclair is best suited to deal with the environment and education, while Charest was seen as the champion of the economy and the federal-provincial fiscal imbalance. As for health care, those polled showed no preference.
"We don't know what the campaign issues will be," Leger said. "For Boisclair, the (overall) results are not so good, but if the issues are education and the environment, he could do well."
It's a three-way race for best premier, with 28 per cent picking Dumont, 26 per cent Boisclair and 24 per cent Charest. Those numbers indicate Dumont is more popular than his party, while his two opponents are less popular.
Forty per cent are satisfied with the Liberal government, up from 34 per cent a year ago.
Leger said Quebecers have warmed to Charest in the past year as he has shifted away from his initial conservative focus on reducing the size of government. He now has a more traditional Liberal stance, focusing on the economy and good government, the pollster said.
Voter turnout will be crucial, especially for the PQ, Leger said.
In 1998 and 2003, many PQ supporters did not vote. Boisclair might have a hard time reversing the trend after a series of gaffes and questions about his leadership from such high-profile PQ members as Bernard Landry.
Many sovereignists will not vote PQ. About 45 per cent of Quebecers support separation but Boisclair has so far managed to persuade only 31 per cent of Quebecers to support him, Leger noted. The other sovereignist voters are supporting Quebec solidaire, the Green Party and the ADQ.
Though the ADQ's support has fallen, Leger said it's too early to count Dumont out.
His ADQ soared to 40 per cent seven months before the last election in 2003, only to fall back to 18 per cent (and four seats) on election day.
But Leger noted Dumont's current support - 21 per cent - is 10 percentage points higher than it was a year ago.
"His trend is good," Leger said. "In many regions, he could be No. 1 or 2. If he performs well, it could create a minority government."
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Who would be the best premier?
Mario Dumont 28%
Andre Boisclair 26%
Jean Charest 24%
Francoise David 6%
*Figures do not add up to 100% source: Leger Marketing
Liberals' support up
36% Charest's Liberals; 31% Boisclair's PQ; 21% Dumont's ADQ