So it happened that a curly-haired guy with a knack for telling jokes was practically greeted as a political Messiah.
The first chapter of Jean Charest's life in provincial politics was written in 1998, when he left his job as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives to return to Quebec.
His duty was to defend Canadian unity from inside the province.
He lost an election to the Parti Quebecois later in 1998, but won the popular vote. And he hasn't lost since. Despite his up-and-down popularity, Charest has repeatedly bounced back and defied the odds to win three straight elections since 2003.
Now in the final hours of a campaign that began with an inquiry into corruption looming over his party, the latest polls suggest Charest is a longshot to extend his winning streak Tuesday.
His legacy covers a period during which he tried to move Quebec farther away from state intervention, guide the province through the world financial crisis and keep the sovereignty question off the table.
Initially, Charest was reluctant to make the jump to provincial politics. He had poured so much energy into the PC party, which he had led since 1995, and he didn't want to leave Ottawa and his Tory peers behind.
Resisting the wave of mounting pressure from those urging him to seek the leadership of the Quebec Liberals wasn't easy, particularly after the party's leader, Daniel Johnson, stepped down.
It had only been a few years since a nail-biting referendum on Quebec independence brought the country to the brink.
Charest wrote in his 1998 autobiography how news of Johnson's resignation spread while he was in Toronto to give a speech to a real-estate association.
He said he called an unscheduled news conference at his hotel to say that he had no intention of seeking Johnson's job.
From there, however, the pleading from all parts of the country only grew louder. The pressure came from the public, the media, the federalist business community and fellow politicians.
"Coming out of Quebec was truly an emotional outcry that came to me in telephone calls, telegrams, letters, faxes, emails," Charest wrote in J'ai choisi le Quebec (I Chose Quebec).
"I would call my office and my assistants told me they were completely inundated, that they had never seen something like this. The telephone never stopped, not at the riding office, not at the parliamentary office, not at the party office, not at the leader's office.
"I never expected the intensity and the extent of reactions that would follow, from everywhere."
Charest's rumoured transition to Quebec politics appeared to agree with a surprising number of voters within the province. Some opinion polls taken at the time suggested that a Charest-led Liberal party would have had the support of more than 50 per cent of the electorate.
In announcing his decision to seek the Liberal leadership, Charest, who served as vice-president of the No committee during the 1995 referendum campaign, dismissed the notion that he could save Canada by himself.
"Canada does not need a saviour but a leader,'' Charest, then 39 years old, said in his hometown of Sherbrooke, which he has represented in both Ottawa and Quebec City.
"If we are to promote Canadian unity, we must begin by rebuilding solidarity right here in Quebec."
Charest, who had 14 years of experience as an MP, signed up to battle a popular Parti Quebecois premier named Lucien Bouchard.
He wasted little time taking aim at the sovereigntist leader.
"One of the reasons that motivates me is I want to get this economy back on track, I want to get rid of this threat of a referendum,'' Charest said. ''I'm so suspicious of the tactics of the separatists on this that I think they're actually going to try and avoid one.''
He warned that even if the PQ had no intention of holding a sovereignty vote, it would keep threatening one and create a climate of permanent instability in Quebec.
Bouchard beat Charest later in 1998 with the help of his ability to tag the Liberal leader as a Mike Harris-style revolutionary who would impose a right-wing government on Quebec. Charest's Liberals, however, won the popular vote.
The Liberal leader's prediction came true: the PQ government never held a third referendum. But that could change if the PQ returns to power, as the polls suggest it will Tuesday.
If those polls are correct and Charest's time as premier is drawing to an end, what would his legacy look like?
One political scientist believes that Charest deserves credit for helping reduce the province's appetite for independence, which the latest survey indicated was at 28 per cent.
Concordia University's Bruce Hicks said Quebecers stopped focusing on what was wrong with the federation because the Liberal leader was only occasionally confrontational in dealing with Ottawa. Charest also stopped pressing for constitutional change and instead promoted bread-and-butter issues.
"I do actually think that his approach to politics, his approach to Ottawa and the other provinces, was a game-changer," he said.
But Hicks doesn't think historians will give Charest the recognition he deserves for his contribution because his approach was much quieter than larger-than-life opponents to Quebec sovereignty, like Pierre Trudeau.
Instead, Hicks predicts people to link the drop in support for sovereignty to the uncertain economic situation.
He said another aspect of Charest's legacy comes from his attempts to reduce state intervention and retool the provincial pension-fund manager — the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec — to make investments that reap returns, rather than use it to protect Quebec companies.
The world financial crisis helped sideline Charest's plans, he said.
"He put this discourse into the public arena," Hicks said.
"It would have been heresy a decade ago for anyone to suggest that the Caisse de depot should simply make investments because they have a good return."
The province's unemployment rate is far closer to the national average than it was when Charest took office. He has made good on his 2003 promise to reduce income taxes. But his pledge to ''re-engineer'' Quebec's state, and make it smaller, was derailed.
The provincial debt has ballooned, especially after the financial crisis. The Charest government responded to the budget crunch with user-fee hikes in several areas, including university tuition.
The tuition gambit brought huge protests this spring that made international news. Many of the protesters also railed about the multiple ethics and corruption scandals that forced Charest to call a public inquiry.
A tiny minority, a few lonely handfuls amid crowds that would sometimes number in the tens of thousands, were waving flags or banners referring to Quebec independence.Suggest a correction