A rush of adrenalin pumped thought the convention floor at the Verdun Auditorium in Montreal as hundreds of Quebec Liberal delegates arrived on Saturday for the party's first leadership convention in thirty years.
The enthusiasm was in contrast to the apathy that characterized the long drawn-out process to replace Jean Charest. The race finally comes to an end on Sunday and the only question is whether it will need one or two ballots to elect a new leader as front-runner Philippe Couillard makes his final pitch for a convincing victory.
Many senior party members including Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a former adviser to late premier Robert Bourassa, as well as former senior Liberal minister Robert Benoît criticized the lack of enthusiasm generated throughout the campaign. There were few new ideas, they argued, and the party had not properly analyzed the cause of their defeat in last September's election at the hands of the Parti Québécois.
In fact, party membership has remained static since the race began last fall with about 45,000 members, the lowest in several years. Nonetheless the party hopes to emerge from Sunday`s vote with a leader that can rebuild the party in time for the next election many expect in about a year.
Among the three candidates, front-runner Mr. Couillard has been working feverishly to win on the first ballot or at the very least come within striking distance after the first vote.
The former health minister who quit politics in 2008 has been on defensive during his final push for the leadership, having to explain his relationship with the former head of the McGill University Health Centre Arthur Porter. Mr. Porter, who now lives in a guarded community in the Bahamas, faces several charges including fraud following a police investigation into his handling of a multi-million-dollar hospital construction project.
The other two contenders, former finance minister Raymond Bachand and former transportation minister Pierre Moreau, have used the mystery that has shrouded Mr. Couillard's business ties with Mr. Porter to undermine the front-runner's integrity and leadership credentials.
Over the past few weeks, Mr. Bachand and Mr. Moreau have taken the battle into the backrooms of the party delegate selection process to stop the momentum that has so far driven the Couillard campaign. Mr. Couillard has successfully attracted the greatest number of delegates in the province's 125 ridings. And he also leads in public opinion polls, showing him to be best candidate capable of leading the Liberals back into power.
Mr. Couillard's opponents insisted all week that it will take a second ballot to determine a winner. If they succeed in keeping Mr. Couillard from getting at least 45 per cent support from the more than 2,600 voting delegates on the first ballot, they feel that they have a chance at an upset victory.
Mr. Bachand appeared the most likely candidate to finish second should there be a second ballot. He has met with Mr. Moreau's supporters and was desperately working to ensure that Mr. Couillard fails to win after the first vote.
Mr. Bachand has support of the party establishment including the Desmarais family who run Power Corporation and even former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. However, Mr. Bachand's political cast has come back to haunt him. He worked closely with former PQ premier Pierre-Marc Johnson in the 1980s, creating doubts within Liberals over his loyalty to the federalist cause.
Mr. Moreau has positioned himself as the candidate of continuity and a loyal follower of former leader Jean Charest. That may prove to be a handicap in his efforts to finish second and force a second ballot since many Liberals blame the former leader for the fall in public support, especially among francophone voters. Public opinion polls indicate that only 20 per cent of the crucial francophone voter support back the Liberal party.
On Saturday evening, the party will pay tribute to Mr. Charest, the man who was premier for nine of the 14 years as leader. His three election victories allowed the Liberals to govern from 2003 to 2012, including two majority government mandates. Even last September's vote produced a surprising result, even though the party was marred by allegations of corruption and collusion involving fundraising activities and the awarding of government contracts unveiled during the Charbonneau Commission. The Liberals won 50 seats – only four fewer seats than the PQ, which went on to form a minority government.