Tim DuboyceCBC's National Assembly correspondent
Quebec Liberals readying to choose new leader
Candidates now focused on galvanizing support
Posted: Mar 16, 2013 8:35 AM ET
Last Updated: Mar 16, 2013 2:12 PM ET
On Sunday, close to 3,000 delegates to the Quebec Liberal Party's leadership convention will flood the Verdun Auditorium to make a choice that will shape the party's fortunes for a decade.
They will decide who will lead the Liberals, most likely into at least two general elections. The first of those tests is likely to happen within a year, given the typical lifespan of minority governments.
Philippe Couillard, Pierre Moreau, and Raymond Bachand each believes he is the right person to take over where Jean Charest left off.
They are steadfast to the Liberal Party's basic tenets, including Canadian unity, a strong public service, and the promotion of economic opportunity for individuals.
Only a few very specific points separate the three.
Bachand has marketed himself as the candidate who will stay the course laid out by Charest, making no fundamental changes to the party's priorities or platform. He presents himself as the steady hand to keep a good thing going. As the former finance minister, and a high-profile player in the business world before politics, Bachand is well-known and well-respected by Liberals. His detractors say his greatest weakness is that he can be an uninspiring public speaker.
Moreau has campaigned as an agent of change. He says the Liberals need to rethink the future of CÉGEPs, for example, even though rank and file members of the party don't appear to believe that is a priority. Moreau is very popular among the Liberal caucus. Insiders say he endeared himself to fellow MNAs with his sense of humour. Insiders say together Moreau and Charest were a laugh riot during caucus meetings.
Couillard is the perceived front-runner. Tall and barrel-chested, the former Liberal health minister (2003 to 2008) is physically is imposing. His track record outside politics, as a brain surgeon and businessman, has earned him respect for his intellect. Couillard is an accomplished communicator. His leadership manifesto reaches deep into Liberal Party tradition, emphasizing the need for government programs without compromising individual initiative.
The run up to the convention
The months-long race saw a few terse moments between the candidates, but for the most part it remained relatively friendly. As the frontrunner, Couillard was the primary target for the other two throughout. He faced questioning over the way he quit politics in 2008, when it appeared he negotiated his new job in the private health sciences sector, while he was still part of Jean Charest's cabinet.
There has also been intensifying scrutiny over Couillard's relationship with Arthur Porter.
Porter faces criminal charges for allegedly accepting bribes in connection to his role as head of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) superhospital project.
Couillard has deflected all criticism, claiming he was never close to Porter, even though he hand-picked the controversial figure for the MUHC job.
Some Liberals are privately expressing some concern that Couillard's past could come back to haunt him as leader, and end up sabotaging the party's hopes of retaking power.
But, between now and Sunday afternoon, the cutting and thrusting between the camps is over.
The three candidates and their operatives are hunkering down, focusing all of their energy on galvanizing support.
All of the candidates have spent the last couple of months recruiting delegates (24 from each of Quebec's 125 provincial electoral ridings) they hope will vote for them on the convention floor.
But, even though delegates declare whom they intend to support when they sign up, there is nothing preventing them from changing their minds.
If no one wins on the first ballot, delegates' second choice will become critical.
Because the relationship between Bachand and Couillard has been a bit caustic, many believe it is unlikely Couillard would gain much in a second ballot if Bachand were to drop off the list. His supporters would likely choose Moreau in large numbers, and possibly end up electing the campaign's "dark horse" candidate leader.
That is why Couillard's organizers are doing everything they can, including taking out luxurious hospitality suites in a downtown Montreal hotel. It's part of a massive charm offensive to allay any concerns their candidate could end up being more a liability than an asset for the party in the next election campaign.
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