Jean Charest doesn't have to look far for dark portents about his chances of another term in power: poor poll results in newspapers, his candidates fretting about losing their once-bedrock anglophone vote, and the Parti Québécois's Pauline Marois openly talking about her preparations for power.
Trying to avoid slipping behind the third-place Coalition Avenir Québec, Mr. Charest came out swinging on Thursday with a gambit usually reserved for the end of the campaign, warning potential CAQ supporters they risk electing the PQ instead and bringing on another referendum.
"Supporting the CAQ is supporting Pauline Marois," he said at a press conference in Montreal. "Voting for the CAQ means you get the PQ."
A poll published on Thursday by the Montreal newspaper La Presse put Mr. Charest's Liberals only two percentage points ahead of the CAQ – while the PQ have opened up a seven-point lead.
Party leaders typically issue such rallying cries closer to election day, when soft supporters of a third party might be swayed to vote strategically instead to stop the front-runner.
Ms. Marois laughed off the suggestion, and retorted that voting for the CAQ would be like voting for the Liberals because both have similar right-of-centre policies and are weak on dealing with Ottawa.
Mr. Charest has reason to be concerned with François Legault's CAQ nipping at his heels. If his party slides into third place, once-solid Liberal supporters could begin to see the CAQ as the real alternative to the PQ – the kind of scenario the federal Liberals experienced when the NDP overtook them in the 2011 federal election.
While Thursday's poll by CROP indicated an increasing number of undecided voters (19 per cent) it had other bad news for the Liberal Leader.
Amplifying trends seen in surveys done late last week, the new poll placed the Liberals 18 points behind the PQ (five behind the CAQ) among francophones, who determine the outcome in most swing ridings. And it suggested a sudden jump in support for CAQ among non-francophones – to 20 per cent from 12 per cent – the English-speaking and immigrant voters that the Liberals usually have locked up.
Mr. Legault surpassed both Mr. Charest and Ms. Marois in ratings for who'd make the best premier.
The poll of 1,005 Quebeckers by the firm CROP was conducted by telephone between Sunday and Tuesday. A poll this size is considered accurate within (+ or –) 3.1 per cent 19 times out of 20.
Henri-François Gautrin, MNA for Verdun, which has a substantial minority of non-francophones, acknowledged Mr. Legault has momentum and said some anglophones are now undecided. "It's worrying," he said.
Mr. Charest blasted Mr. Legault on Thursday. He noted, in English, that the CAQ Leader is a former separatist, and still not a federalist, and portrayed his promise to scrap school boards as a plan to "dismantle the English school boards."
Meanwhile, Ms. Marois positioned herself as premier-in-waiting. She said her transition team, set up "several weeks ago" is ready to take over after the Sept. 4 vote.
"I can't allow myself to improvise and behave like an amateur in dealing with something as serious as this," she said.
Ms. Marois also unveiled her party's energy platform, which calls for reducing greenhouse gases by 25 per cent by 2020 and 60 per cent by 2030.
In a campaign where no party has been able to stand out, singular events appear to dominate the political agenda.
Earlier this week, the PQ created controversy after promising to adopt a Charter of Quebec Secularism that would prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols.
It sparked racially charged comments by the staunchly Catholic mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, who attacked a PQ candidate of Algerian descent, Djemila Benhabib, for defending secular values.
While many condemned Mr. Tremblay's views, Liberal candidates came to his defence. "He [Mr. Tremblay] doesn't miss an occasion to assert his ideas, and I think he really has the courage that honestly not too many people have," Liberal Minister of Mines Serge Simard said, in comments aimed at many conservative voters.
Mr. Legault also stirred strong reactions this week when he said young people in Quebec seek the good life rather than working hard, as young Asians do. He may have sparked another controversy on Thursday when he commented on the CROP poll's result that showed women were more reluctant to support social change and needed more explanation.
"I think we have reached the stage where we don't have any choice. That is what we are going to try and explain to the women of Quebec," Mr. Legault said.