"You have a duty to answer clearly: Yes or no, will you call a referendum in the next mandate?" The question to Pauline Marois posed by François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, was the sharpest moment of the debate. The question has defined the first half of the election campaign. Ms. Marois, whose campaign took an aggressive stance on the pursuit of independence for a few early days before receding in the face of bad polls, gave a variation of the standard talking point she has stuck with since: "No, there will not be a referendum. . . as long as Quebeckers are not ready."
Ms. Marois was the most combative and demonstrative, as she fought to control the debate and keep Mr. Couillard on defence. Mr. Legault the most incisive, asking the toughest questions. Québec Solidaire Leader Françoise David appeared to be most reasonable, maintaining an even tone throughout. In his first leader's debate, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard often floated above the fray, using the tactic common of a politician ahead in polls, as he is.
The only moments of levity in the debate were when leaders were caught on camera when they thought the lens was aiming the other way. In one moment, Mr. Legault raised his hand like a schoolboy. Mr. Couillard stared wide-eyed into the distance. At the end of the debate, as the leaders approached Ms. Marois to shake hands, she was on all fours, apparently trying to gather up papers she'd scattered across the studio floor.
In the 2007 debate, Action Démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont brandished an internal government memo saying the province's infrastructure was in terrible shape. "It's irresponsible to pull a rabbit out of your hat like that!" Liberal Premier Jean Charest protested. In 2003, Charest pulled out his own rabbit, using a previously unknown quote, cited more or less accurately, from Jacques Parizeau partly reiterating his infamous lament about losing the 1995 referendum to "money and a few ethnic votes." Mr. Charest asked PQ Leader Bernard Landry if he too endorsed the view, knocking him off his game. In Thursday night's debate, there was no rabbit.
The leaders are halfway through their campaign for the April 7 vote. They will tour the province until the next and final debate on Thursday, which will feature shorter one-on-one encounters and more opportunities for sparks.