With Pauline Marois and Mario Dumont riding the "identity" wave, Jean Charest found his own message: "It's the economy, stupid!"
By returning to the ultimate , Bourassa-era Liberal staple - economic development - Charest seems to think he has found a better fit for himself than the identity game, in which he could never outplay Marois or Dumont.
With all this talk about the economy, Liberals are hoping that the scent of a looming recession in the United States will help scare voters away from Dumont and his lack of proposals and Marois's "gestures of sovereignty." With an election always possible, Charest is trying to polarize the electorate by opposing the economy and nationalism, hoping to recoup federalist voters who succumbed to the ADQ and those who could be scared off by Marois's plans.
Charest also is betting the next months could be rocky for Marois. Although she managed to steal Dumont's thunder on the identity issue with her "nous" and her promise to strengthen Bill 101, Charest hopes the coming debate on sovereignty within the Parti Québécois won't go quite as smoothly.
Trying to influence Péquistes before their national council meeting March 15-16, prominent sovereignists are fighting it out in the opinion pages of francophone newspapers. Denis Monière, a longtime sovereignist, wants a referendum if the PQ gets elected with at least 45 per cent of the vote. Former PQ MNA Jean-Claude Saint-André wants the party to achieve sovereignty if elected.
Gérald Larose, one of Marois's éminences grises, wants the PQ to make so-called gestures of sovereignty within Canada such as a Quebec constitution, citizenship and the patriation of powers from Ottawa. Most of all, he wants no reference to any referendum, which he turned into something of a dirty word: le référendisme.
Since that's also Marois's agenda, chances are that Larose, also president of the Conseil de la souveraineté, was sent out to legitimize her position and take on people like Monière and Saint-André. This, in turn, saves Marois from having to squabble about this delicate issue, leaving her ample time to talk up language and identity - two more consensual issues within the PQ and among francophone voters.
Marois will watch quietly as Péquistes and columnists debate whether the Larose position is a vision that radicalizes the PQ, or one that resembles Pierre-Marc Johnson's "national affirmation" within Canada and Dumont's autonomist stance.
On Radio-Canada's Le club des Ex, a taste of the surrealistic confusion that's building up around the Larose-Marois gig was given by former PQ MNA Jean-Pierre Charbonneau. Defending Marois, he said: "Autonomy is independence, which is sovereignty."
But once all the writing and talking is done, expect Marois and her caucus to come out at the national council in favour of most of Larose's proposal which, in fact, was her own from the day she became leader and said she would no longer bring up the R- word.
This leaves Charest to hope the big, bad hard-liners won't take it, will divide the PQ and make it look, once again, like the party of never-ending "chicanes." But it's an open secret that since the last referendum, with no third one ever in sight, most hard-liners quietly went home. So with few hard-liners left, if the ADQ's fortunes keep wavering and the PQ have a decent shot at getting back into official opposition or a minority government, chances are that most PQ troops would rally around Marois, whether they agree with her or not.
It might be "the economy, stupid" for Charest. But he's still taking a risk leaving the identity field for Marois and Dumont to play on. Left with no referendum and actual sovereignty taking a back seat to "gestures" of sovereignty within Canada, issues relating to identity and nationalism might actually gain in importance for francophone voters.
That is, unless Charest is waiting for the Bouchard-Taylor report to make his own move on those very issues.
Would Charest abandon the identity issue to PQ, ADQ?
Despite Liberal hopes, the PQ could rally behind Marois and her 'gestures of sovereignty'