At a time when there have never been fewer federalist superstars on the Quebec horizon, the momentum is nevertheless shifting away from the sovereignty movement, threatening to leave it high and dry on the eve of make-or-break provincial and federal elections.
This week, two published polls put Jean Charest's Liberals in the lead for the first time in more than three years. For the premier, the late-winter federal budget that will set the Quebec campaign formally in motion cannot come a day too early.
That does not mean the upcoming election will be a cakewalk for the Liberals. At only 43 per cent according to a CROP poll published yesterday in La Presse, satisfaction with the government is still below the comfort zone. Charest trails 12 points behind the Parti Quebecois with francophone voters. And another poll, done by Leger Marketing for Le Devoir, shows the Action Democratique, Quebec's third party, to be on the rise. But there is no doubt that the premier has more momentum in the lead-up to the campaign than his Parti Quebecois opponent.
These days, it seems that Andre Boisclair cannot get out of bed in the morning without putting a foot wrong. Under his leadership, a 16-point lead on the Liberals has turned into a three-point gap the other way.
Over that 15-month period, Boisclair has become a leader under siege. Quebec's influential union leaders are openly critical of his leadership. Hardly a day goes by without a presumed PQ star candidate bowing out of the upcoming campaign. Ex-premier Bernard Landry is said to actively want his old job back. Unconfirmed rumours of a putsch have been circulating for weeks.
But the provincial numbers are also part of a larger picture that extends way beyond Boisclair's perceived failings as a leader.
Not so long ago, Gilles Duceppe was the most popular sovereignist in Quebec; today, his Bloc Quebecois is also in a slump.
According to CROP, the Bloc has dropped eight points since the end of November. At 34 per cent, it now only holds a narrow lead on the Liberals, at 29 per cent.
Since Stephane Dion's leadership victory, support for the party has gone up nine points in Quebec. The improvement in Liberal fortunes is particularly noticeable in Montreal where voters were so turned off by the sponsorship scandal and Paul Martin's uncertain leadership that they stayed home in droves in last year's election.
In the province's largest urban market, the search for a progressive alternative to the Conservative government is leading many to give the Liberals a fresh look. Whether Dion can sustain that interest now that he will be coming under more intense and critical scrutiny remains to be seen but there is no denying that he has growth potential in his home province.
But Dion's honeymoon is not the Bloc's only problem. Whatever else Stephen Harper is not doing right by Quebecers, he is not driving up support for sovereignty.
Satisfaction with the Conservative government has been inching upward since the end of the fall. At 50 per cent, it is up eight points since the end of the fall. More Quebecers are satisfied with the directions of the federal government than with Charest's policies.
Recent attempts at a Conservative makeover on the environment are having an impact, as are rumours of an impending new federal-provincial fiscal deal. But the recognition of Quebec's national character by the House of Commons has also paid off both for Harper and for federalism. Support for sovereignty is down to 45 per cent. It has remained below the 50 per cent mark ever since the Conservatives took over from the Liberals a year ago.
Some sovereignist strategists thought they had a winning combination in the advent of a right-wing government - whose values stood to be at odds with mainstream Quebec - and that of Dion whose post-referendum record is controversial in the province as a federal leader.
Instead, the disappearance under Harper of many of the Quebec-Ottawa irritants that used to be par for the course under the Chretien/Martin Liberals has allowed Quebecers to focus on larger federal issues and, by the same token, on the national parties that are in a position to manage their outcome.
The Bloc's faltering numbers are yet another reason why there will likely not be a federal vote this spring. When one does come, Quebec may have a few more surprises in store for the rest of Canada. The realignment that started with last year's federal campaign seems to have been more than a one-election wonder.
Chantal Hebert's national affairs column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. chebert @ thestar.ca