Log Cabin Chronicles

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Doing the numbers

A Liberal MNA confides privately that 68 is a nice number. That figure would give the Liberals a slim but workable six-seat majority in the 125-place National Assembly.

By venturing that tally, our deep throat deputé is admitting two things: hopes are not high in the Charest camp for a rouge tide across the province Nov. 30, and, Charest is not kidding when he says his campaign must and will be a ground war.

The question is, how do the Liberals win that ground war?

Where are the 21 seats they will need to steal from the Parti Québécois to make it to that nice figure of 68?

The election results from the last trek to the polls in 1994 are instructive in understanding the challenge the Liberals face. In that contest, with Daniel Johnson and Jacques Parizeau canceling each other in the charisma department, the PQ and Liberals came out in a virtual tie in the popular vote with about 45 percent each, and a 15,000 vote spread. But on the riding level the PQ took 77 seats and the Liberals 47. Mario Dumont of Action Democratique (ADQ) won his Riviere-du-Loup riding.

For such a narrow win to produced a 30-seat majority meant there were some razor-thin victories in ridings clustered in several regions in the province. These are the proverbial swing ridings where a slight shift in preference to one party or the other can turn into a bonanza at the ballot box.

A good example is the five ridings in Laval. In 1994, the Liberals only took one of the seats, and that, oddly enough, by a whopping majority. Of the other four snatched by the PQ, none was won by much more than 1,000 votes, and in all four cases, had the ADQ not siphoned off probable rouge votes, those seats would have been in Johnson's fold.

Not for nothing were three of those PQ MNAs named to cabinet, and not for nothing has Premier Lucien Bouchard found $150 million for a Métro extension to Laval.

Apart from counting on such potential little jackpots, Charest's ground war strategy targets individual ridings where the combination of favorable voting patterns and a strong local candidate may result in a gain. Take Bonaventure, one of two ridings on the south shore of the Gaspé peninsula. It's a riding that has a long and durable Liberal tradition, for 30 years the fiefdom of the late Gerard-D Lévesque - but it's also the boyhood home of the late René Lévesque, no relation.

The PQ's Marcel Landry wrested Bonaventure from the Liberals by 2,400 votes last time, and was rewarded with the Fish, Farm and Food post by Jacques Parizeau. However, when Bouchard took over in 1996, Landry was strangely absent from his cabinet list, a demotion that might cost him crucial votes in a squeaker. Landry's prospects worsened when Charest managed to wangle a bona fide star for Bonaventure.

She's Natalie Normandeau, the bright young mayor of Maria who can boast a successful law practice, years of political experience in Robert Bourassa's office, plus big little-people points for her work setting up a food bank.

Other possible sniper pick-offs for the Liberals include Trois-Rivières where long-time Mayor Guy Leblanc has jumped into the ring. Oddly enough, he'll be facing Landry's successor in the 3F ministry, Guy Julien, who took the riding by a mere 500 votes last time over a low-profile Liberal. Another mayor, Jacques Langlois, may pull off an upset in the Quebec City-area riding of Montmorency. Langlois, longtime mayor of Beauport, has been tempted before, but his timing may be prophetic with a split developing in the sovereignist ranks between the sitting MNA, who quit the PQ caucus, and the nominated Péquiste candidate.

Barring a monumental gaffe in the 20-odd days remaining in the campaign, or a blow-out by Charest or Bouchard in Tuesday's leaders' debate, it looks like a photo-finish poll-wise. How that count translates into seats region by region will be up to the locals, and how it adds up to 68 is anybody's guess.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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