MONTREAL - Does Jean Charest, the comeback kid of Canadian politics, have one more improbable victory left in the tank?
Those who have written off Charest's political career in the past have been proven wrong over and over — the veteran has always found a way to bounce back when his popularity has plummeted.
Not only do the odds against the Quebec premier seem to be stacked higher than ever, his uncanny survival ability may be put to the test in 2012, with an election expected as early as the spring.
If a string of scandals wasn't enough, Charest also faces another obstacle: a popular new party that promises to change the political conversation in Quebec.
The upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec (Coalition For Quebec's Future) has led in the polls over Charest's Liberals and the Opposition Parti Quebecois for months, even before the party's official launch in November.
CAQ is led by Francois Legault, a successful businessman and former PQ cabinet minister, who pledges to break Quebec's decades-long cycle of planting independence at the heart of the political discussion.
Once a devoted sovereigntist, Legault now promises to shift the focus to what he sees as more urgent concerns, like education, health care and economic development.
If he becomes premier, Legault says he will refrain from holding a referendum on Quebec sovereignty for at least a decade — a strategy aimed at luring votes from skeptical federalists and the growing number of people who have tired of the independence debate.
Legault's message of change appears to have found a captive audience throughout Quebec.
But even as Charest confronts a formidable new opponent, low popularity, and a succession of corruption-and-cronyism allegations, experts warn that the premier and his party should never be counted out.
Just ask the last guy who nearly defeated Charest.
"The Liberal party is never down and out — never, never, never," said Mario Dumont, the ex-leader and co-founder of the populist Action democratique du Quebec.
"It's truly a machine that demolishes whatever's in front of it.
"The Liberal machine is more effective at demolishing its adversaries than in governing Quebec correctly."
Dumont, who now hosts his own TV show in Quebec, expects Charest to call an election this spring, before the CAQ can get organized.
He also thinks the premier will act quickly to take advantage of a divided PQ, beset by internal grumbling over the performance of its leader, Pauline Marois.
Charest might consider holding an election this spring, before the start of an upcoming commission of inquiry.
The probe will look into corruption in Quebec's construction industry and its ties to organized crime — and politics.
"If you remember the Gomery commission, and other commissions, when the hearings begin, when the witnesses start talking one after the other, it's not necessarily good for the government," Dumont said.
Dumont led a surging ADQ from just five seats to a surprising 41 in the 2007 election, launching him into official Opposition and leaving Charest with a thin minority government. The ADQ fell just seven seats short of Charest's Liberals.
A year-and-a-half later, Charest reclaimed his majority status in another election that left the ADQ decimated with just seven of 125 seats. The resounding defeat provoked Dumont to resign.
Dumont warned that Legault's early success could evaporate just as quickly, particularly against a smooth, well-organized campaigner like Charest.
"You start off high in the polls a few months before the election — expectations are very, very high — and all of this is with a young organization, full of new candidates who don't have political experience," he said of Legault's team, which for the most part, is still unknown.
"He remains a candidate that's at high risk for collapse."
To grab a foothold in Quebec's national assembly, CAQ is in the process of absorbing the declining ADQ, a party that has been whittled down to four seats.
Legault's coalition is frequently described as centre-right but it has, in recent months, tacked to the centre and even promised left wing-style economic interventionism to keep businesses in Quebec.
The party not only evokes ideas from both ends of the standard political continuum — left and right — but also wants to straddle a far deeper divide that has consumed Quebec for almost half a century: the one pitting supporters of Canada against those of an independent Quebec.
The party's name and logo were carefully chosen to get that message across — with the reference to a "coalition," and the logo that includes a rainbow of colours.
The initial CAQ caucus is also likely to include several members of the legislature who currently sit as independents. Among them are former members of the ADQ and the left-leaning PQ.
From the starting line, CAQ's prospects look promising, but there are no guarantees Legault will be able to maintain his high level of support.
And if that support melts away, the next election may come to be dominated by one question: Where do all those voters go?
One political scientist predicts any significant CAQ bleeding will benefit Legault's old party, the sovereigntist PQ.
University of Ottawa professor Robert Asselin says soft sovereigntists and nationalists have parked their votes with Legault.
"I think the key for Legault is to hold that group of nationalists together," said Asselin, who noted Legault is trying to accomplish this by taking strong stances on immigration and the Bill 101 language law.
"So he doesn't want to sound like a sovereigntist, but at the same time he's taking very nationalist positions."
Since the federal election in May, it's been difficult to track Quebec's ever-migrating sovereigntist vote.
The sudden eradication of the Bloc Quebecois, and rise of the NDP, is interpreted by many here not as evidence of a progressive awakening but as proof that people want to talk about something new.
Asselin said he was amazed to see a recent poll suggest that 60 per cent of people who voted for the left-wing NDP also support Legault's supposedly right-wing CAQ.
"To me the, that indicates the desire for change, any change, however very ill-defined," he said.
"There's ... a strong sense of fatigue, a sense of impatience about the current state of affairs and people are looking for anyone to do something different."
In recent months, the PQ has watched its support erode, rousing a crisis within its own increasingly worried ranks.
Marois' party lost several MNAs who questioned her leadership when, despite widespread dissatisfaction with Charest's scandal-plagued government, the party still found itself trailing the Liberals.
Suddenly Marois' 93.1-per-cent score in a leadership review vote last April didn't seem to matter much, as she spent months trying to hang on to her job.
There have even been rumblings that ex-Bloc Quebecois boss Gilles Duceppe might take the PQ helm. The man who led the Bloc to the most disastrous defeat in its history, and into an existential crisis, was being heralded months later as a potential saviour of the PQ.
Asselin expects Marois to lead the party into the next election, but says she's a prisoner of her party's position on sovereignty — an idea that hasn't caught on with younger Quebecers.
But one re-remerging issue in Quebec could rekindle the PQ's chances in an eventual election: resurrection of the province's language debate.
Recent newspaper headlines and talk shows in Montreal have fuelled passionate concerns about an invasion of unilingual Anglos in senior positions at banks and big corporations. One radio host mocked the accents of anglophone municipal politicians.
Similar debates at the federal level have only fuelled the issue.
Asselin believes Legault is already well-positioned to win and adds that a CAQ victory could also have implications for Canadian politics.
If Legault were premier, Asselin predicts he would be an "autonomist" who would show little interest in day-to-day developments in Ottawa — except when it came to financial transfers and other advantages.
"I don't think he would necessarily be good news for Canada," said Asselin, who worked for the federal Liberals.
"(It) wouldn't be a secessionist party, but I don't think there would be a lot of positive inputs from Quebec if Legault was going to be premier."
Still, Asselin cautioned that it's way too soon to say whether the CAQ can beat the Liberals.
"It's very volatile right now. I wouldn't count Charest out," he said. "One should not underestimate him."
Charest's past shows that he's capable of orchestrating improbable victories — no matter how bleak things may initially appear.
He was a federal Tory cabinet minister when he was in his 20s, but he was forced to resign over an ill-advised phone call to a judge. Charest then bounced back and re-entered cabinet. He lost a subsequent leadership race to Kim Campbell, but survived the 1993 electoral purge to become one of only two Progressive Conservatives to win their seats.
By age 35, he was the party leader.
Then in his only campaign at the helm, the Tories went from two seats to 20, and the youthful Charest was seen as an increasing threat to the Chretien Liberals. That's when Charest was pressured to jump into provincial politics in 1998, to save the moribund federalist forces there. Then he lost his first election as Quebec Liberal leader.
Throughout his provincial career, the 53-year-old has continually had dizzying swings in his popularity — and, for much of the time since he became premier in 2003, it has remained quite low.
One of his biggest turnarounds came at the end of his first term as premier in 2007, when his popularity ratings plummeted into the teens.
Charest managed to cling to power in the 2007 election with a minority government, thanks to a tax-cut promise facilitated by billions of dollars in transfers delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper just before the election.
He rebuilt his popularity by running his minority government with a different approach from Harper's, in a collegial atmosphere where Charest consulted with the opposition.
But the following year, in late 2008, Charest lifted a page directly from Harper's playbook in an election campaign where he cast himself as the steady hand in turbulent economic times.
Charest bounced back to capture another majority mandate.
That win made Charest the first Quebec premier since the 1950s to win three consecutive terms, a feat even his iconic predecessors like Robert Bourassa, Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard never accomplished.
A fourth consecutive mandate would be a first for a Quebec premier since Maurice Duplessis.
Dumont said the CAQ and PQ should prepare themselves for a tough fight.
"The Liberal party will be the one with the most money. It's a party with a great communication strategy that is always capable of making people forget the past."