Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has the most to win or lose heading into this federal election – especially in Quebec.

And he faces a steep climb in La Belle Province, if Quebec pollsters, pundits and political watchers are to be believed.

Dion and the Liberals appear to be in trouble in Quebec, the Bloc Québécois has lost its footing, while Steven Harper and the Conservatives are enjoying an unprecedented swell of support in the province – at least outside Montreal – that has the chattering class whispering about 1984.

"In Quebec, it’s a disaster" for the Liberals, Montreal newspaper La Presse proclaimed in its top story headline Thursday, Sept. 4. "The Liberals’ morale is at zero."

The Quebec Liberal election team is in panic mode, the newspaper reported. The party is "heading to the slaughterhouse" in 75 ridings, especially outside its traditional Montreal bastion.

The Quebec Grits lack money, organization and star candidates to bolster their troops, according to influential party insiders quoted in the story.

Some polls put the Liberals second behind the Bloc, in a virtual tie with the Conservatives, while others have Dion decidely in third place, trailing with a scant 20 per cent support.

A test of leadership

This election will be a test of leadership, and Dion has a tough road ahead in Quebec.

Dion has shown "flagrant difficulties" in his leadership and has shown a remarkable lack of political instinct since he took over the party's top spot, wrote editorialist Bernard Descoteaux in Montreal newspaper Le Devoir on Sept. 2.

"The Liberal party is no longer Quebec’s party, as it was during a century," Descoteaux said. "The fact that it has this son of Quebec at its head, so out of sync with his fellow citizens, is a handicap, rather than an advantage."

Dion is unpopular in his home province, because he "suffers from the animosity toward him of a large segment of the francophone electorate, which he has not succeeded in attenuating since his arrival at the head of the party," wrote La Presse columnist Alain Dubuc  on Sept. 5.

The Liberal leader may appeal to Grit supporters in the Rest of Canada, or ROC — but in Quebec, he has a real image problem, and it's not his personality, wrote political columnist Josée Legault  in the Montreal Gazette.

"It’s his baggage as Jean Chrétien’s unity minister, as well as his failure as Liberal leader to change and compete with Harper’s open federalism. That explains why even his metamorphosis into Mr. Environment, though a popular issue in Quebec, hasn’t helped him overcome his image as the Clarity Act bogeyman," Legault said in her Aug. 29 column.

Dion’s rigid brand of centralizing federalism is less appealing to Quebecers than Harper’s co-operative, open federalism, Descoteaux has said.

And while both men have "zero charisma," Harper has a stronger leadership track record, he points out.

Harper's decentralization policies and "Québécois nation within a united Canada" motion appeased many soft nationalists in the province, notes Dubuc.

The appeal of conservative policies is underestimated in Quebec, Dubuc reminds. 

"This nationalist electorate, especially in the regions, often subscribes to a conservative tradition, the traditional blue current, whose vitality was revealed by the successes of the Action Démocratique du Québec," the right-wing party elected as Official Opposition in the 2006 provincial election, ahead of the Parti Québécois.

Harper has recruited André Bachand, a former two-term Tory MP in Sherbrooke (1997-2003) and Quebec's delegate in Ottawa.

Bachand, who is openly nationalistic, famously said he would never serve under the Tory leader after the Reform party and Progressive Conservatives merged in 2003. Now he's set to run in Sherbrooke, a riding once held by his friend, Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

'Is a miracle possible?'

"Harper’s fundamentals in Quebec are solid," wrote L. Ian Macdonald in a National Post column on Aug. 29. "And having traded places with the Liberals as the federalist alternative outside Montreal, the Conservatives could argue they have become the block-the-Bloc party, the very case the Liberals used to make."

Which begs the question of national unity, Quebec's trademark hot-button election issue.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe is lined up at the gates with his familiar refrain that his sovereigntist party is best positioned to protect Quebec's interests in Ottawa, and the smartest choice to hold off a Conservative majority. 

The Bloc has lost some feathers since the last election, Dubuc says. Recent surveys suggest only one in three Quebecers would vote yes for sovereignty, which could explain the Bloc’s loss of support and "relaunches yet again the debate on the party’s pertinence, which exists to carry on the march towards independence in Ottawa."

Duceppe's hold on Quebec voters who are pro-environment and anti-war is being challenged by the NDP, and Jack Layton, who wants to build on Thomas Mulcair's 2007 byelection win in Outremont, a key Montreal riding.

"Is a miracle possible?" Dubuc asks of Dion's case. He has surprised skeptics before, notably by taking the Liberal leadership.

A federal election campaign is not a leadership race, he points out.

"Happily for Mr. Dion, the election campaign is Canadian, and Quebec, as we know, is not Canada."