09/03/2012 03:32 EDT | Updated 11/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Former airline founder hopes his new Coalition party takes off Tuesday

TROIS-RIVIERES, Que. - A constitutional calm descends on Quebec and allows the moribund economy to spring to life.

The province's students stop all that protesting and start working hard, like Asian kids.

Every family has a doctor; the middle class gets a tax cut; and a famous former cop drives the corruption out of government.

This is the Quebec that Francois Legault and his Coalition party have been promising voters during his visits to strip malls, restaurants and hotels over the past month.

But do voters trust this man, a former airline executive with a penchant for populist promises, to turn his plan into a reality? The answer comes Tuesday when Quebecers head to the polls.

Legault's party is on the cusp of completing one of the more rapid transformations in Quebec's recent political history.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec, not quite one year old as a party, headed into the election with little more than a toehold in the provincial legislature. It had been created, gobbled up the old ADQ party, and attracted some recruits who believed in Canadian unity and others in Quebec independence.

If the party doesn't win Tuesday, and the latest polls haven't pointed to a win, it still has a reasonable chance of finishing second.

Whatever happens, Legault has already redefined the province's political paradigm.

Between the federalist Liberals and the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois, Legault has inserted his party as a third option for those who want a truce in the four-decade debate.

Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister and long-time ardent sovereigntist, hasn't described a coherent ideology so much as laid out a series of actions he would, or would not, take over the next 10 years.

He would vote No in a referendum, but wouldn't campaign for the federalist side.

He would not make constitutional negotiations a priority, but he would request more power from Ottawa to protect the French language.

"I'm a Quebecer first, and I will always defend the interests of Quebec first," he said recently during a campaign stop just south of Trois-Rivieres.

"But I'm also part of Canada. I'm a Canadian. And I want Quebec to be able to be stronger in Canada."

Some of his old friends have been shocked by his political conversion and the idea that a man who just a few years ago called independence an urgent necessity would now call himself a ''Canadian.''

The crux of Legault's sales pitch to voters is the promise of a 10-year referendum truce, which will spring the Quebec economy from the shackles of federalist-sovereigntist bickering.

With a federal government headed by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, Legault sees a natural ally for his business-friendly tax program. Legault's eagerness to use the provincial pension fund to support local businesses might mortify conservative purists.

But he has won some fans in Ottawa with his promise to have a far smoother relationship with the federal government, and be less confrontational, than the PQ would.

"I think we can be optimistic because I don't have a secret agenda like Mrs. Marois," he said over the weekend.

"We want (the federal-provincial relationship) to work, that it be positive, that we have success in our negotiations with the federal government."

That, of course, may be easier said than done.

Several of Legault's proposals could be open to constitutional challenge, including his promise to abolish school boards and extend Quebec's language laws to companies operating under federal jurisdiction.

His opponents have targeted his alleged penchant for offering up grandiose plans with few details about how to achieve them.

Both the Parti Quebecois and the Liberals have been using the same slur to describe Legault and his election promises: "unreliable."

He has faced particular scrutiny for his promise to make a doctor available to every family in the province within a year of taking power.

But Legault brushes aside critics who say he's being unrealistic.

"It is possible within the next 12 months to give every Quebecer a family doctor," he said in Drummondville, Que., during one of the new party's few rallies of the campaign.

"You only need one thing: be determined and have confidence in yourself."

Legault likes to boast that he is running a positive campaign. From his speeches, to interactions with voters on the street, he rarely departs from his favourite themes — health, education, the economy.

Corruption, which had been a dominant feature of the party's early campaign, has subsided somewhat as an issue as the party focuses on the PQ.

Legault didn't mention the Liberals once in set speeches on the weekend.

Jacques Duchesneau, Montreal's former police chief and star witness at a corruption inquiry, still received a rousing ovation when he was introduced at the rally.

It was his surprise candidacy that electrified the early days of the Coalition's campaign. But as the party rose in the polls Duchesneau and the Coalition came under increased attack. Their popularity remained flat in the latest surveys.

The increased spotlight has thrust Legault into an unfamiliar role: political showman.

He is a wealthy co-founder of Air Transat and an accountant by training. His language, however, is more blue collar than that.

On the stump, Legault's French is shorn of flourish, a cement-truck concoction stirring up the rules of syntax, populist catch-phrases and hockey-arena patois.

He ran afoul of the chattering classes earlier in the campaign when he chastised Quebec's young people for taking too much interest in the "good life" and not working hard enough. He said Quebec would be in trouble if this attitude remained while people in Asia worked so hard.

He later went on to applaud Jews, for having such low dropout rates.

His critics retorted with statistics that cast doubt on the stereotype of the lazy Quebecois teen, and they accused him of pandering to prejudices.

But Legault's campaign doesn't appear overly interested in winning seats in downtown Montreal, where the urban classes are more apt to compare him to the crusty out-of-touch uncle at the family party.

His campaign, rather, has stuck largely to the small- and medium-sized towns scattered along the roads between Montreal and Quebec City, as well as the suburban ring around the cities.

Without the organizational capacity to hold large-scale rallies, his advisers have thrown him out onto the street. He appears to enjoy retail politics.

In St-Hyacinthe, Que., around an hour east of Montreal, Legault worked the crowd at the local market over the weekend. He had a handshake and a quip for everyone he met.

"You shop here often?" he asked a shy group of teenagers before moving on.

He came across a stall selling caramel butter. "It's Quebecois," he said to the cashier, noting the label. "My wife can't say no."

As he emerged from the market a small crowd had assembled and broke into applause, telling Legault, "Keep it up!"

A middle-aged woman approached him and shared a long story about her problems accessing medical services in the area. Legault's aides watched nervously.

He didn't say much but smiled throughout. He ended the conversation by telling the woman, "Don't worry, the good side is coming."

The woman was visibly moved as she left Legault's side.

"I never thought he would listen to me," she said to no one in particular. "Oh my, that feels good."