With a couple of exceptions, Philippe Couillard has stuck to his game plan. That consistent performance peaked in the first leaders’ debate on March 20. He firmly tapped into fear among the majority of Quebeckers of a third referendum on sovereignty. He sidestepped uncomfortable questions and pointed attacks. In Mr. Couillard’s rookie debate appearance, he came across as unflappable, good-humoured and solid leadership material. It was a solid job interview for premier from a first-time candidate.
In the second debate one week later, Mr. Couillard performed like a man who suddenly felt 22 days of attacks pressing upon his shoulders. Where one week earlier he was smooth and confident when asked about his offshore bank account and association with Dr. Porter, he seemed defensive and stunned by predictable questions. Where in Debate One he managed to get a referendum on the table early and often, he waited 75 minutes to raise independence in Debate Two. He was the target of all attacks, and even the television lights seemed more intense, shining off his forehead with a cruel glare. His foray into factory-floor bilingualism at the debate may yet prove harmful.
The sad truth is the most effective Liberal tactic for decades now has been a form of negative-option voting. Liberal leaders can promise innovative health-care reforms, new protections for the French language, jobs, balanced budgets, but nothing has more reliably drawn support than fear of a referendum. In recent elections, the former Liberal leader Jean Charest would save his most strident warnings for the final weeks of the campaign. Mr. Péladeau’s aggressive separatist message in the early days, combined with Ms. Marois’s musings about the shape of a future country, provided Mr. Couillard an unusual opportunity to launch the argument forcefully just four days into the campaign.
Given his unabashed love of bilingualism, Mr. Couillard must defuse the charge that he would be a weak defender of the French language. He must also put to rest questions about his motives and his previous private-sector working life. But his main challenge in the next seven days will be to renew his party’s most effective tactic and remind Quebeckers that Article 1 of the PQ’s founding document is to pursue an independent country.