MONTREAL - A man who wants to spoil the Parti Quebecois' sprint to electoral victory found himself fending off some sharp elbows tossed his way Wednesday.
Francois Legault, who polls suggest might have the best chance of dislodging the PQ from front-runner status, came under attack on multiple fronts.
First, the Coalition party leader had his character criticized in a newspaper interview. PQ Leader Pauline Marois, who used to serve in cabinet with Legault, suggested he had a history of double-crossing colleagues and should not be trusted by voters.
"I can't take it anymore," Marois told Montreal La Presse. "Francois Legault is a big talker, small doer."
She questioned his political courage. She accused him of pestering his former cabinet colleagues because he was in such a hurry to achieve Quebec independence, before renouncing the cause. And she suggested he had a history of turning on people, from his days as a businessman through his political career.
"He left his partners (at Air Transat) without warning them. He left me in the (2001 PQ) leadership race. He left his supporters who wanted him to take a run at the leadership in 2005. Now he's leaving sovereignty."
And she accused him of letting other colleagues handle difficult jobs — including when he was in cabinet, and again in opposition: "I trusted that guy... He's not trustworthy."
Gaining steadily in public opinion polls since the campaign began, Legault has promised that his party would shelve the independence debate and bring together people of various political stripes.
He proposes major changes to structures in the health and education systems, including moving high schools to a 9-to-5 schedule and eliminating school boards. His opponents call those plans a recipe for confrontation with unions, with little tangible benefits.
Legault was also confronted Wednesday at a public appearance by a rival candidate — a very rare occurrence during a political leader's tour.
A PQ star candidate had a front-row seat while Legault was making a speech in Montreal and, during a public question-and-answer session, began grilling the Coalition leader on his local transit plans.
They engaged in a back-and-forth over Legault's plans. The Coalition leader would make rail transit to the suburbs a higher priority; the PQ calls urban subway extensions an equally urgent priority. Eventually, Legault snapped at his opponent.
"Is this a debate? Because I thought I'd already had three debates on TV," he said as PQ candidate Jean-Francois Lisee returned to the microphone for another go at him.
Lisee said he was simply doing his job, speaking up for the interests of the constituents in his Montreal riding.
Wednesday's developments came as pundits suggested the election could be turning into a two-way race. They base that assessment on polls indicating the governing Liberals were being squeezed out nearly everywhere that doesn't have a heavy anglophone population — in other words, in most of the province.
Liberal Leader Jean Charest, meanwhile, was campaigning Wednesday in his home riding of Sherbrooke where he has already made numerous stops. Polls there suggest he is in danger of losing his seat.
He was also expressing frustration at Legault's party.
What had Charest upset was a comment from Legault's most famous candidate, ex-police chief Jacques Duchesneau, that Liberal cabinet ministers had vacationed on the yacht of a construction magnate at the centre of corruption controversies.
Charest was adamant he had made inquiries with his cabinet and was confident none of his ministers had actually been on the yacht belonging to Tony Accurso, who now faces a variety of criminal charges.
And he called it unfair that the Coalition has, in his opinion, been levelling slurs without backing any of it up with names and evidence.
Before he entered politics, Duchnesneau had testified at a corruption inquiry that 70 per cent of the money raised in Quebec politics is done illegally — but he has yet to provide much evidence.
"We can't live in a society where we accuse each other so gratuitously only in the hope of hurting and damaging," Charest told reporters.
"Do we want a political party like that, that acts that way, in Quebec society?"
Charest, who called the election after months of student demonstrations, decided to cancel a campaign event after about 50 protesters showed up. The Liberal leader had planned to meet with business people in a mall but decided to avoid any trouble.
Charest said it was not a "macho contest" and that he was leaving the "culture of confrontation to others."
About a dozen police officers monitored the protest, which remained peaceful.