For more than a decade, the Parti Québécois has been chasing the rainbow of a sovereignist referendum victory. In next month's election, that quest could take the PQ deep into the political wilderness.
One week after the call for an election on March 26, the Quebec campaign has turned into a referendum on a referendum, something past péquiste leaders from René Lévesque on down strived to avoid but that André Boisclair has manoeuvred himself into.
Quebecers are massively opposed to the prospect of another referendum. To take some of the sting out of his commitment to hold a third vote on Quebec's political future, Boisclair introduced the softer term of a "popular consultation," into the péquiste rhetoric, on the day of the election call.
The predictable semantics debate that followed has only served to shift the focus of the campaign from good government to the sovereignist agenda.
So far, Boisclair has been going with the flow, shoring up his sovereignist credentials over the course of his public appearances, plastering the province with campaign signs that feature a "Yes" logo and engaging in a referendum-style war of words with Liberal Leader Jean Charest.
In a speech to his troops on Saturday, Boisclair used the R-word seven times and promised to lead Quebec to "freedom" 22 times.
At the same time, the platform the PQ is putting forward is a radical departure from its 1995 referendum approach.
The notion of a future partnership with Canada that was at the core of the last campaign has been relegated to the back burner.
Instead, a winning referendum would be followed by one calendar year of talks with Canada, primarily designed to set the terms of separation of the province.
Regardless of their outcome, Quebec would then declare itself a country.
All that is likely to exacerbate a significant disconnect between the PQ rationale and the Quebec public.
PQ strategists argue that playing up the sovereignty card makes sense as more Quebecers support sovereignty than support the PQ.
But those numbers are based on the 1995 referendum question. Back then, the partnership plank was considered so essential that prominent sovereignists such as Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry would not consider going into a referendum without it.
While the PQ has done away with the idea, there is no evidence that most Quebecers are willing to just forego a relationship with Canada.
In fact, as they relaunch past battles, both the PQ and the Liberals may be pushing the crucial soft nationalist vote to Mario Dumont.
A Leger Marketing poll published Monday put the PQ down to 26 per cent with Dumont's Action démocratique party closing in on Boisclair.
Yesterday, Le Devoir put some faces to the sovereignist exodus. Its front page featured a story on half-a-dozen candidates who have left the PQ or the Bloc Québécois to run for Dumont.
Charest, who has marginally consolidated his position at the expense of the PQ since last week's call, is equally at risk of alienating soft nationalists by overplaying his federalist rhetoric.
Paul Martin, who tried to polarize the 2006 federal election in Quebec along either/or lines, only managed to pave the way for a Conservative breakthrough by delivering soft nationalist voters into Stephen Harper's open arms.
Most commentators agree that Dumont has won the first week of the campaign.
Stealing a page from Harper's last campaign, the ADQ leader is delivering one headline-grabbing announcement a day.
The other leaders have been too busy quarrelling about what would take place on the morning after a "yes" vote to highlight some of the more questionable assumptions of Dumont's platform.
On the weekend, his agenda featured a speech on Quebec's potential for more autonomy within Canada that was cleverly timed to coincide and contrast with Boisclair's sovereignist cry from the heart.
In the past, the PQ has won power by downplaying sovereignty rather than by putting it front and centre with voters. Since the party is not normally suicidal, it is fair to suggest that this time it must be desperate.
To date, its approach to the campaign is primarily designed to appeal to diehard sovereignists who make up its core vote, in a bid to energize the party's base and avoid slipping from first place in francophone Quebec to third place overall between now and March 26.
The next string of polls will tell whether Boisclair has staunched the hemorrhaging or made it irreversible.
R-word not helping PQ
Boisclair uses semantics to court nationalist vote but Quebecers are in no mood for another referendum