No knockout punches were landed in the two-hour event, the first of four debates scheduled this week. But there was ample opportunity for the candidates to spar, particularly over questions of ethics and governance.
Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, who is leading current polls, hammered Liberal Leader Jean Charest's record over the nine years his party formed the province's government and pushed to contrast her party's plans from those of François Legault, the former PQ minister turned Coalition Avenir Québec leader.
"I will never let [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper choose for us," Marois said in a reminder of spats with the Tories over employment insurance, justice policy and transfer payments. "I won't get on my knees before Ottawa like Charest does. And I won't renounce the [sovereignty] fight like Legault."
The PQ has said that if it's elected it would seek a transfer of powers from Ottawa in areas including employment insurance and immigration policy. The party says it will use each refusal from the Tories to build its case that Quebec doesn't belong in Canada.
However, one of the other debate participants wondered why the PQ leader was so timid about talking about her plan for independence. Françoise David, co-spokesperson of Québec Solidaire, discussed her own ideas for achieving independence more explicitly than the main sovereigntist leader.
David at one point snapped at Marois: "Attacking Harper is easy. Just about everyone in Quebec can't stand him."
Marois attempted to defend her independentist credentials, saying she would hold a sovereignty referendum "tomorrow morning" if she felt she could.
Charest sees ethical breach
Charest, at times facing a three-pronged attack from the other leaders on corruption and ethics questions, reverted to themes that could harm both his main rivals simultaneously: doubts about Quebec independence, and the PQ's own alleged ethical misdeeds.
He repeatedly referred to a six-year-old report that described illegal fundraising schemes in the PQ government of 1994 to 2003, which both Marois and Legault belonged to.
"There's only one case that's been proved, while you're making all kinds of insinuations [about my government]," Charest said. "There's one proven case of a government that closed its eyes — and that's the government of which Pauline Marois and François Legault were a part … as proven in the Moisan report."
On the independence issue, Charest said neither Marois nor Legault could be trusted. Marois has insisted that she would not immediately call for a referendum if elected, but wants the option to do so if the party feels there's enough support for the yes camp. Legault has said he'll put the referendum issue on the back burner for 10 years if his party forms the next government.
"For 40 years you were a sovereigntist. Now for four seconds, you change your mind," Charest fired at Legault Sunday night.
He referred to Legault's recent statement that he would vote against Quebec independence in a referendum — a statement that stunned some of his old allies.
But Legault replied that the premier was mired in "old battles," playing a tired old tape. He accused his opponents of being obsessed with independence talk and said they were focusing on issues people no longer cared about.
"We will show the door to career politicians," Legault said, during his opening statement. "It's enough … Things need to change."
Sunday's was the only debate that will include all four leaders of the biggest parties. The remaining three will feature a series of one-on-ones.
One-on-one debates are scheduled for Monday through Wednesday.
However, David, who maintained a calm demeanour as she drove home her party's position on nationalism and social justice, won't be part of those.
The TVA television network said the debates were structured around the parties most likely to form the next government.