The byelections are the first Mr. Dion has faced since becoming leader last December, and many -- both inside the Liberal party and outside -- see them as a test of his ability to bring the Liberals back to power. Should the party perform poorly or lose its stronghold of Outremont, insiders predict serious questions about Mr. Dion's leadership.
Jocelyn Coulon, appears to be in a tight race with former Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair, who is running for the New Democrats. Mr. Coulon, a foreign affairs expert and former journalist, has had to repair relations with the local Jewish community who felt some of his writings on the Middle East were too critical of Israel. The New Democrats also claim that dozens of Liberals, many unhappy with Mr. Dion's leadership, have volunteered to help Mulcair.
I wouldn't put much stock into NDP spin about Liberals deserting to Muclair, but there is no question that this race is effectively a referendum on Dion's leadership. Should his hand-picked candidate lose, or scrape by, it will only fuel speculation about Dion's leadership.
Privately, however, the Conservatives are working hard to wrest Roberval and St-Hyacinthe-Bagot away from the Bloc in the hopes that the loss of two traditional strongholds will cool any interest the Bloc may have in bringing down Mr. Harper's minority government anytime soon.
If the Conservatives pull off an upset, and take a seat away from the Bloc, then they clearly have wind in their sails and concrete proof that they are making inroads in Quebec. While a victory might dampen the Bloc's desire for an election, it will be countered by Conservative enthusiasm.
For the New Democrats, who have never elected an MP in Quebec in a general election and only once in a byelection, Outremont represents their best hope of gaining a Quebec foothold, which could be used to show the NDP as a truly national party and a viable option for left-of-centre voters.
"More and more people will realize that we are a party that can bring the fight to the Tories on key issues," Mr. Mulcair said when asked about the impact of the vote outside Quebec. "Like the environment, like Afghanistan, like gas price gouging, like ATM fees -- the type of issue that people would like somebody to do something about."
This by-election is Layton's only hope for a breakthrough in Quebec. It is unlikely that the NDP will be able to field another candidate of Muclair's stature, which might explain the intense campaign the NDP is waging. Just a by-election, but should the NDP win, it would represent a seismic shift in federal politics.
One interesting admission:
Marcel Proulx, MP for Hull-Aylmer and the Liberals' Quebec lieutenant, dismisses suggestions there are divisions in the ranks or any drop in support for the Liberals. He says the Liberals are competitive in all three ridings and will win Outremont, but perhaps not by as much as in the past.
Proulx says the Liberals will win, but his admission of a lesser margin is further proof that the race is up for grabs. That is the first comment from a prominent Liberal, wherein there is recognition of erosion. Sept 17 is shaping up to be a very interesting day for all the parties involved.
Jeff offers another point of view.