It is a fascinating phenomenon. After his party went through a near-death experience at the last election, Mario Dumont is stealing the show in this one.
It's as if he's been dipped in Teflon. No financial costing for his platform? No star candidates? No problem. He wants to axe school boards - a delicious thought, I admit - but can't define precisely how that would work? No problem.
He wants to give $100 a week, tax free, to parents of young children who don't attend daycare, wanting to take the money from the social-assistance budget? No problem. He speaks and Premier Jean Charest and PQ leader Andre Boisclair react to his proposals.
If Charest or Boisclair had floated the same ideas without backing them up, they'd be chopped liver. With so many voters who can't seem to identify with either of them, it's as if Dumont can do no wrong.
Dumont's advantage is that no one expects him to be premier anyway. Not this time. So voters are willing to cut him some slack in the demonstration department. But there's more to it.
Although he's younger than Charest and Boisclair, Dumont is actually the senior party leader. He's been at the head of the ADQ for 14 years. Charest has lead the Liberals for nine years, whereas Boisclair has been Parti Quebecois leader for only 16 months.
In face of Charest's wobbly popularity and Boisclair's inability to connect with most voters, Dumont has evolved into enough of a trusted value to take a shot at holding the balance of power with a minority government or perhaps, as I wrote two weeks ago, forming the official opposition.
At this point though, no one knows how Dumont's popularity will translate into seats. But if he keeps doing what he's doing, Dumont is sure to leave the doghouse at the National Assembly.
The leaders' debate on March 13 will be crucial. But with his years of experience and teflon coating, Dumont should do well.
Everybody remembers the knock-out punch Charest delivered to Bernard Landry in the 2003 debate when he brandished an alleged statement by Jacques Parizeau that completely destabilized Landry.
But few recall what Dumont did at that moment. He immediately picked up the ball from Charest, demanding Landry officially dissociate himself from Parizeau. He saw Landry's vulnerability and didn't hesitate to gang up on Landry with Charest.
Dumont showed instinct and the kind of speedy reaction he'll need in the coming debate, because this time he'll be the one facing the combined fire of his adversaries. And if the ADQ is still doing well in the polls, Charest and Boisclair will be ferocious.
As for Boisclair, the leader's debate will not only be crucial, it will be vital - as in survival. Unless PQ fortunes improve dramatically before then, his challenge will be to do better than good.
But time is running out for Boisclair. He needs better polls now, or his troubles will mount. Not only is the PQ losing ground in some crucial regions, his very leadership is now being questioned by his own troops.
Two major candidates, Richard Marceau and Richard Legendre, contradicted him this week on the issue of reasonable accommodation.
When something like that happens in the middle of an election campaign - when closing ranks is usually the mot d'ordre - it means that, rightly or wrongly, Boisclair is seen as a lame duck by some of his own people.
With PQ TV ads hardly showing Boisclair's face, and if polls continue to be unkind, expect more PQ candidates to start fighting their own battle in their own riding without giving much thought to the boss.
And did I mention the discreet observation most often heard in PQ ranks these days? It's about Pauline Marois. And it always starts with: "what if?" What if they had picked her instead?
But you can't rewrite history.
Up, up and away
Mario Dumont is soaring, mainly because of Charest's unpopularity and Boisclair's inability to connect with the average voter