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The debate was held as the election campaign moves into its final phase and the leaders are trying to shore up weak ridings across Quebec.

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This time François Legault definitely gave the impression he wants to keep his job.

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But his opponents were even better prepared with reasons he shouldn’t.

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In an encore presentation to their first debate Sept. 15 on TVA, the five leaders in the Oct. 3 general election went back at it Thursday evening, this time at Radio-Canada.

The difference between the two debates was striking. While the politicians in the first debate were criticized because at times everyone was speaking at the same time, the format of the Radio-Canada debate made the exercise easier on the ears.

Off the top, moderator Patrice Roy set the tone, saying he wanted an “orderly and respectful” debate and the leaders, perhaps feeling contrite, generally followed the rules and exercised discipline.

“You have been exemplary,” Roy said as the two-hour debate drew to a close.

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The debate was evenly balanced, with Roy revealing that each of the five candidates averaged between 17 and 19 minutes in speaking time.

But while tamer, the barbs flew anyway in an entertaining show.

Legault — who was accused of playing defence last time and looking grumpy — upped his game, tackling Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Conservative Party of Quebec Leader Éric Duhaime with equal gusto.

He blasted the QS climate reduction plan, accusing the party of “living in wonderland” in telling Quebecers he can cut greenhouse gases by 55 per cent by 2030. And he returned to calling the tariffs QS plans to slap on large vehicles “orange taxes.”

Quick on his feet, Nadeau-Dubois fired back.

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“Stop putting up scary Halloween decorations (to scare people),” Nadeau-Dubois said, drawing a few laughs in the media room. “Stop trying to scare Quebecers.”

It got even nastier with Duhaime, as Legault accused him of acting like an “agitator and being irresponsible” by tapping into and exploiting anger over COVID-19 health measures.

“How many more seniors were you ready to sacrifice?” Legault asked, pointing directly at Duhaime.

“I won’t stoop to your level,” Duhaime said.

Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party and Duhaime’s Conservatives are in a fierce battle in three Quebec City region ridings.

“I’m not surprised that Mr. Legault attacked me so much,” Nadeau-Dubois told reporters later, “It reveals what his real priorities are. It’s not to fight climate change; it’s to attack and disinform on the real programs of QS.”

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Duhaime said he found the Legault attack “a bit bizarre” because it came during a discussion on mental health.

There was also a heated exchange between Legault and Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade on the place of women in Quebec society. Anglade is the only female leader in the race.

Anglade said that under Legault’s administration there had been setbacks for women. Legault responded that the CAQ government had increased salaries for teachers and nurses.

“We have to be able to name things, and I did,” Anglade said later, adding Legault’s leadership and hers are fundamentally different: he imposes his view while she prefers to build consensus.

“It (the accusation) angered me a bit,” Legault told reporters after the debate.

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Unlike the first debate, Anglade also squeezed in a pitch for federalism. It’s a sign she hopes Liberals who sat out the 2018 election campaign will come back into the fold.

She took heat from Duhaime, who accused her, again, of betraying Quebec’s English-speaking community by at first supporting the CAQ’s Bill 96 overhauling the Charter of the French Language, proposing amendments making it worse for the community and then in the end voting against the law.

Anglade did not address the charge directly but said the Liberals could not support a law that takes away the rights of the English-speaking community.

Legault and Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon had a go at each other as well over the future of the independence movement Legault used to be part of.

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St-Pierre Plamondon accused him of wanting to “extinguish the sovereignty movement in Quebec.”

At the TVA debate last week, Legault boldly stated Quebec’s Liberals no longer have a monopoly on promoting federalism because the CAQ wants Quebec to succeed within Canada as well. He did not repeat the comment in this debate.

Legault this time said while he considers independence legitimate, Quebecers today are not interested in referendums.

Asked by the moderator whether he would vote Yes or No today, Legault did not answer.

“It would divide Quebecers,” Legault said. “We don’t want a referendum.”

Legault was asked later whether he thought he did better in this debate than the last.

“It’s up to people to judge,” Legault said, agreeing he had more fun this debate than the last one. “I had more chances to propose things instead of only answering the four leaders.”

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The debate was held as the election campaign moves into its final phase. The leaders are trying to shore up weak ridings across Quebec and help candidates who seem to have a chance of winning.

Legault’s campaign in particular has been criticized as lacklustre and without focus. Analysts note that while Quebecers had a reason to vote CAQ in 2018 — to rid themselves of the Liberals — this time Legault, who is offering more of the same, has a tougher sell.

As Journal de Montréal columnist Joseph Facal noted Thursday, it’s not enough for the CAQ to say the other parties are worse than they are and can’t be trusted to govern. It’s also not enough to sell your past because voters are an ungrateful lot and only vote on your past if they want to punish you.

“You thus have to say what you will do for them in the future, to map out where you want to go,” Facal wrote. “The CAQ risks dragging itself over the finish line and to have a less glorious victory than it wanted.”

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    Debate analysis: Barbs fly as Legault goes on the attack to keep his job

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