03/21/2014 11:07 EDT | Updated 03/21/2014 11:59 EDT

First Quebec Election Debate May Benefit Liberals' Couillard Most


Each of the four leaders participating in the first debate of the Quebec provincial election Thursday night had clear objectives.

The incumbent, Pauline Marois, needed to breathe some new life into a campaign that is losing steam.

The challenger, Philippe Couillard, had to consolidate his growing support and avoid any stumble that could halt his momentum in its tracks.

François Legault needed to do something to stop the hemorrhaging of his party's support, while Françoise David had to keep her own party moving forward.

None of the leaders managed to meet these objectives fully, but some succeeded more than others.

David, leader of Québec Solidaire, was widely perceived as the "winner" of the 2012 debate, a performance that almost single-handedly got her elected to the National Assembly. She again performed well, taking care not to argue too forcefully or too personally with opponents, and putting the emphasis on QS proposals rather than the failings of other parties.

But one thing that David did not shy away from was her party's support for sovereignty, bringing up the issue more than Marois. It is unlikely to hurt her party greatly, as most of the supporters the party is targeting comes from the left-wing of the Parti Québécois, but it took some of the edge off the attacks against the PQ by Legault and Couillard concerning a potential referendum.

In pledging to hold a referendum in the first mandate of a QS government — a promise Marois is not willing to make — David nearly made Marois look comparatively moderate.

Nevertheless, its progressivism rather than its sovereigntism defines the party and, more than any of the other leaders on the stage, she represented the social conscience of Quebecers.

Liberal Leader Couillard wagered voters were more concerned about their pocketbooks.

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Couillard mentioned job creation throughout the debate, working it into his talking points when the topic was anything from the social safety net, health care, the secular charter, or national unity. A potential referendum was another focus, as he mentioned it in both his opening and closing remarks.

He went softly after Coalition Avenir Québec Leader Legault, whose party's votes the Liberals need to win, attempting to cast the CAQ's policies as unrealistic and unrealizable. The rookie among the four, Couillard did not seem out of place.

But he had a few rough moments. He talked about private clinics, opening himself up to the topic of health care privatization. He was cornered by David on questions of integrity related to his move from the public to the private sector when he first stepped out of politics.

Though Couillard had to correct David on the details, and then again when the moderator brought up the same situation in the preamble of a question, it knocked him off balance. It was probably the most awkward moment of the night.

Other striking moments occurred whenever Couillard and Marois faced off. Though the four leaders did take pains to be (mostly) respectful to one another, a genuine dislike between Couillard and Marois was obvious. As soon as the debate began, the two were sniping at each other in tones and terms that did not occur between any other two leaders during the night.

Marois had a decent showing, and dominated much of the airtime (which, as the incumbent, is not unusual).

She tried to paint Couillard as the inheritor of Jean Charest's time in office, and forcefully defended her government's record in its brief time in power. She was the most energetic of the four leaders, though she did little to lessen her reputation for haughtiness.

Marois was on the defensive for most of the night, and did not go a long way towards calming fears of a third referendum. When pressed on whether she would hold one in her first mandate, she said she wouldn't — as long as Quebecers aren't ready for one. Both Legault and Couillard gleefully exploited the wiggle room PQ leader had left herself.

It was perhaps the strongest moment of the night for Legault, though the effects are far more likely to benefit the Liberals than the CAQ.

Legault went after the PQ as much as he did Couillard, the leader who has attracted most of his supporters away. But he seemed to be the least present of the four on the stage. In summing up the entire night, the boxing match between Couillard and Marois and the respectful interventions of David come to mind. Legault barely registers.

In that sense, Legault was the least able to meet the objectives of the night. Though, since that objective was nothing less than to rescue his party from oblivion, his was the most difficult to achieve.

Without a rebound by the CAQ or cause for QS supporters to drift back, the PQ will struggle to displace the surging Liberals.

Though Couillard did not do enough to win the debate himself, he may benefit most from it.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections. You can pre-order his eBook, "Tapping into the Pulse", a retrospective of polling in 2013, here