RHÉAL SÉGUIN, TU THANH HA AND HEATHER SCOFFIELD - André Boisclair finds himself staring at headlines speculating about whether his Parti Québécois could suffer a historic electoral setback and slip to third place.
And as if Mr. Boisclair's troubles weren't bad enough, the sensitive issue of his sexual orientation has popped up, leaving him looking speechless with anger in a television clip that repeatedly played on television yesterday.
Mr. Boisclair might have also handed Liberal Leader Jean Charest some ammunition when he said there could be more referendums in Quebec should his side lose the next one.
Mr. Charest was quick to pounc on Mr. Boisclair's comments.
"It's not true that we have to have referendums indefinitely," he told a cheering crowd of supporters in Asbestos. He said he recognizes that there will always be separatist sentiment in Quebec. But the 1995 referendum consumed so much political energy that health care and education suffered, Mr. Charest said.
"If André Boisclair says he wants a referendum as fast as possible, and referendums until he wins, then on the 26th of March, Quebeckers have the right to say no to a referendum, and yes to the Liberal team, yes to health care, yes to education."
Earlier, Mr. Boisclair had stated that even if PQ should hold and lose another referendum on sovereignty that won't mean the end of sovereignty referendums in Quebec.
"That is up to the people to decide. And that is the beauty of democracy. I will never decree the end of an idea."
"Liberty is a very strong, powerful idea. It will always be in the political debate because we do form a nation," Mr. Boisclair said.
For the past few days, as his party dropped in public opinion polls, Mr. Boisclair has tried to rebuild bridges in his party.
He made peace with reluctant labour leaders, the same people he once promised he wouldn't cozy up to.
He bowed to the demands of defiant local riding association members to allow candidates unwanted by the PQ establishment to run for the party. And now sovereignty has become the central theme of his campaign.
He ended his tour yesterday by visiting a safe, friendly crowd - students at Laval University - and speaking to them about Quebec independence, the kind of stuff to shore up core support, not win new converts.
Also, Mr. Boisclair taped a segment of Tout le monde en parle, a talk-show that will air Sunday. One of the most popular TV shows in Quebec (it drew more than a million viewers last weekend despite being up against the Academy Awards show), it offers a friendly setting where Mr. Boisclair can expect sympathetic hosts and a supportive studio audience.
He is trying to win back support from many long-time supporters who have abandoned the PQ for the Action Démocratique du Québec.
The PQ plummeted to third place this week in the greater Quebec City region. And an opinion poll in the PQ heartland suggested the party is on the verge of losing its standing as the dominant party in the staunchly nationalist Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region.
Then there was the issue that, until now, did not dare to speak its name in Quebec politics.
The election campaign took an ugly turn with a shock-radio host's attempts to turn the homosexuality of the PQ Leader into an issue.
Earlier this week, a local PQ candidate, who is gay, was taunted by Louis Champagne, host of the top-rated morning show in the Saguenay area.
Sylvain Gaudreault, the candidate in Jonquière, was asked by Mr. Champagne in an interview whether it was harder to sell a leader from a different sexual orientation, especially with the local factory workers.
"When you show up with another homosexual, aren't you going to be asked the question, 'Listen, the PQ, isn't that a club of fags?' "
When Mr. Gaudreault tried to avoid the issue, the host then asked him about Mr. Boisclair's past use of cocaine. "He took cocaine; are you for cocaine? . . . He took it while he was a cabinet minister. Will he do it again?"
A clip television stations replayed throughout the day yesterday showed Mr. Boisclair looking uneasy and speechless for several seconds when asked about the radio interview.
"You know what? I'll let Quebeckers answer that question," he eventually replied. "I know Quebeckers believe in equality, in freedom. If some people want to fight the campaign on this issue, they won't run into me but into millions of Quebeckers."
Last year, Robert Bernier, a political scientist at Montreal's École nationale d'administration publique, conducted interviews and focus groups with panels of undecided voters and found that Mr. Boisclair's sexual orientation aggravated their negative perception of him.
The opposition was highest among older voters, Prof. Bernier found.
Mr. Boisclair's controversial appearance last December in a TV parody of the movie Brokeback Mountain, that saw the leader loudly criticized within his own party, also raised eyebrows.
The short comedy sketch featured caricatures of the U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Stephen Harper partially naked.
Mr. Boisclair made an appearance, leading some to question his judgment and further damaging his leadership credentials.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe yesterday came to Mr. Boisclair's defence. Mr. Duceppe, whose wife is a breast-cancer survivor, recounted a run-in of his own with Mr. Champagne.
"He once said I was campaigning alongside "Mamie la cancéreuse," at a time when Yolande had cancer," Mr. Duceppe said. "He apologized on the air after I served him with a formal notice."
Meanwhile, the Premier is deliberately keeping a cautious, low profile. Mr. Charest makes himself available to the news media only once a day, early in the morning. He then holds one other event in the day - a factory tour, or a stroll through a mall - followed by a rowdy rally in the evening.
PQ suddenly facing historic electoral setback