Okay, Andre Boisclair, you're going into your first leaders' debate tonight, against two battle-tested opponents.
This will be Premier Jean Charest's fifth debate, counting the English and French debates in his one campaign as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, and Mario Dumont's third.
They know all the tricks by now, what works for them and what doesn't, and what to expect. You don't. This debate won't be held under National Assembly rules, and your parliamentary experience won't count for much.
You're going into this debate as the least popular of the leaders among the francophones who will decide this election.
In fact, in the Leger Marketing-Gazette poll two weeks ago, the only voter category - by region, language, gender or age - in which you were the most popular leader was 18-to-24-year-olds, who are also the least likely to vote.
Among both men and women, voters above the age of 34 and in eight of the 11 predominantly French-speaking regions outside Montreal Island, you ranked dead last.
Boy, people really don't like you, do they?
You've got two hours this evening to change the impression that people have acquired of you since you became Parti Quebecois leader 16 months ago. You've got two hours to get them to like you, or at least to decide there's a chance you might be able to run the province after all.
It's not impossible. Charest did it in the last election, after coming into the debate with his party trailing by 17 points among francophones with two weeks left in the campaign.
The latest poll results available yesterday, from CROP for La Presse and the Cyberpresse web site, have your party statistically tied for the lead among francophones with Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec.
And you might have a couple of things going for you. One is that since your party is down to its bedrock support, below 30 per cent province-wide in the CROP-La Presse-Cyberpresse poll, your opponents this evening might leave you for dead and spend their time attacking each other instead.
Another factor in your favour is that you're the clear favourite in the expectations game. The media always talk about the knockout punch in these debates, but the reason television still replays the one Brian Mulroney landed on John Turner in the 1984 federal debate is that there haven't been many since.
Usually, the winner is the one who creates the best impression by exceeding expectations when placed on an equal footing with opponents perceived as stronger; it's not whether you win or lose, but whether you cover the point spread. Often, a draw is as good as a win.
Expectations for you are by far the lowest. You're down so far that you have nowhere to go but up, and potentially, you have the most to gain this evening.
And you might get to spend most of the evening on the attack, while your opponents are in the more difficult and for them unfamiliar position of playing defence. The high level of dissatisfaction with the outgoing government suggests Charest might be sitting on a bubble that's about to burst, while Dumont has gains to protect.
But last time, Charest was already a seasoned television debater, both his opponents had been overcoached into a state of near catatonia and one of them, Dumont, was by then no longer much of a factor anyway.
You've still got to take Dumont out of contention for the support of voters who are dissatisfied with the incumbent. You've still got to polarize the election, to turn it into a two-way fight between your party and the Liberals over whether Charest has earned four more years in office. And you've got to start to do that this evening.
The first three weeks of the campaign were the regular season, when the parties fill their slates of candidates (and, in the case of the ADQ, start working on a second one) and the contenders (the three major parties) are sorted out from the pretenders (the Solidaires and the Greens). This evening marks the start of the playoffs, when the margin of error is zero and a single mistake can lead to elimination.
This is your last chance, Andre Boisclair, and not just to turn the campaign around. Blow your opportunity tonight, either in the living rooms or the media room, and your political career could be over before your 41st birthday.
So just forget all that stuff you keep hearing about the many reasons the people watching tonight don't like you. You might as well be yourself anyway, because the worst thing you can do in one of these debates is pretend to be somebody else. It never works. Just ask your predecessor, Bernard Landry.
Relax, Andre, it's your last chance
Parti Quebecois leader is down so far he has nowhere to go but up
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