It was the defining moment of the Quebec election campaign: billionaire media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau clenching his fist in the air, saying he wanted Quebec to be a country while announcing his candidacy for the Parti Québécois.
The powerful symbol quickly raised the spectre of another referendum on sovereignty, one that may provide for the type of heated exchange in Thursday's first televised leaders' debate that could shape the remainder of the campaign.
Another referendum wasn't part of the PQ strategy. It polarized Quebec voters in a way the party hadn't planned and suddenly became a ballot question. Support for the Coalition Avenir Québec went into a tailspin that split the vote in favour of the Liberals, propelling Leader Philippe Couillard at the top of the latest public opinion poll and placing PQ Leader Pauline Marois on the defensive.
In Thursday's debate Ms. Marois will try to regain control of her political agenda. At the outset, the PQ designed a campaign plan based on identity politics that included the controversial secular charter, which would prohibit the wearing of overt religious symbols in the public sector. The charter was specifically intended to split the vote to the PQ's advantage by appealing to voters' mistrust of religious fundamentalists and the accommodation demands of certain religious groups.
As Ms. Marois prepared for the debate, the PQ sent out the minister responsible for the secular charter, Bernard Drainville, to drag the issue back into the limelight.
"We won't give up on the charter. We will keep pushing it at the forefront," Ms. Marois said on Wednesday as she prepared for the debate.
In a bid to get her campaign off the referendum track, the PQ Leader will remind voters that the April 7 election wasn't about holding a referendum but about electing a government. And she plans to call into question Mr. Couillard's personal integrity and the Liberals' alleged ties to corruption in the construction industry.
"I'm a lot tougher than people think. I don't let myself be trampled on," he said. "Mud does not interest me. But if Madame Marois wants to go there, she'll taste it too."
Mr. Couillard appeared unfazed, confident, almost debonair as he heads into his first leaders' debate. He campaigned hard until late Wednesday, leaving only a few hours away from the hustings on Thursday to concentrate on the debate.
Mr. Couillard said he anticipates being the main target, especially after both CAQ Leader François Legault and Ms. Marois spent the week attacking him. The Liberal Leader, who just marked his first anniversary in charge of the party, said he has been preparing for the election campaign and the debate from the moment he won the leadership.
Mr. Couillard plans to argue that the PQ cannot be trusted, that Ms. Marois has a hidden agenda on sovereignty and that she will change directions without notice as she did when she failed to keep her promise to completely abolish the health tax or achieve a balanced budget by the end of the current fiscal year.
"They pulled out the charter last fall to hide their economic disaster. And I am warning you that they will pull it out again today to hide their referendum. No one is being fooled by that," Mr. Couillard said Wednesday while campaigning in Quebec City.
Mr. Couillard's integrity was being questioned because of his association with Dr. Arthur Porter, the former head of the McGill University Health Centre who faces criminal charges over an alleged $22-million fraud, money laundering and kickback scheme. But if he becomes the target of any mudslinging during the debate, the Liberal Leader warned that he will pull out a few surprise revelations of his own.
The campaign has turned into a two-way race that leaves Mr. Legault far behind for the April 7 vote. Trailing badly in the polls, Mr. Legault hopes that his message of cutting government spending and reducing taxes will seduce voters away from the two older parties.
"What is most stressful is to be responsible for all these people behind me," Mr. Legault said as he turned to look at a group of CAQ candidates. "A third of voters decide who they vote for after a debate … My job is to convince Quebeckers to get away from the old quarrels."
The party with the most to win from the debate will be Québec Solidaire, whose left-wing, pro-sovereignty message appealed to the PQ's social-democratic followers, disappointed with the recruitment of a conservative, right-wing business tycoon like Mr. Péladeau.
QS co-leader Françoise David performed well in the 2012 debates, combining sharp criticism with eloquent poise as she tried to outflank the PQ on the left. But the impact Ms. David will have remains unpredictable.
As does the outcome of Thursday's critical debate that will set the stage next week for a different format involving one on one confrontation involving all four leaders in the final showdown before the vote.