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Candidates Roman Baber, left, Pierre Poilievre and Jean Charest, right, take part in the French-language Conservative leadership debate in Laval, Que., on May 25.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

If there was a message Jean Charest wanted to get across, it was the one he left to the last minute of the last scheduled debate in the Conservative leadership campaign. Let’s call it his “Stop Pierre” speech.

It was in what can be called Mr. Charest’s home turf, Laval, Que., in the French-language Conservative leadership debate. But it’s a good wager he’ll be repeating it in English, in other places.

The dynamic is clear now: Pierre Poilievre is the front-runner, campaigning with a populist appeal, opposition to vaccine mandates, support for the trucker convoy and a pledge to fire “gatekeepers.” Mr. Charest is chasing.

So he closed the last debate with a warning that the Conservative Party can’t turn itself over to a politician whom he more or less called a judgment-deficient yahoo – and a “pseudo-American.” He might as well have called Mr. Poilievre Donald Trump.

“The question we face is very serious,” Mr. Charest said. “Will we in the Conservative Party take the path of American-style politics, attack politics, politics where we pit one group against another, politics where we make slogans and every answer is a dodge?

“Or are we going to make Canadian politics for Canadians? That’s the choice I’m offering – not to be a pseudo-American. That’s not what we want as a country. We want a leader who is able to unite the party and who has judgment, who doesn’t go sending signals about conspiracy theories, who goes off into theories about the Bank of Canada or bitcoin.”

It’s effectively an admission that Mr. Poilievre is winning – and a call to stop him. And it rests on the hope that some Tories are starting to think Mr. Poilievre has taken the populist turn a couple of twists too far, into erratic judgment.

It seems like a long shot. Mr. Poilievre also focuses on relatable concerns about the cost of living. His support of the trucker convoy, and the visceral frustration it represented, struck a chord in the party. It propelled him into front-runner status. But Mr. Charest was warming up a key theme.

In the last debate, in Edmonton two weeks ago, Mr. Poilievre pledged he’d fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada, and faced widespread criticism. On Wednesday, Mr. Charest taunted Mr. Poilievre that he wasn’t going to repeat that. And though support for trucker convoys usually gets cheers from Conservative crowds, Mr. Charest stepped up his criticism of Mr. Polievre’s support and of blockades.

Maybe that was easier in a debate in Quebec, where Mr. Charest was easily the best speaker in his native tongue and where his contingent of supporters was the largest and loudest. But Mr. Poilievre had a sizable group, too, and was the only other candidate really capable of keeping up in French.

Mr. Poilievre got his own licks in, responding to Mr. Charest’s talk of illegal blockades by asserting that the former Quebec premier has no credibility on law and order – referring to the Charbonneau Commission, which probed allegations of corruption in Quebec, including in the provincial government Mr. Charest led.

And if you had to judge by the French-language debate, those two were where the list of viable contenders ends.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown managed to press Mr. Poilievre with terrier-like attacks, but he did it in French that was uncomfortable and, as Mr. Poilievre noted, he looked like Mr. Charest’s tag-team partner.

The other three candidates – Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison and Roman Baber – struggled to do much more than read statements.

Some of them tried to mix it up by blasting two controversial Quebec laws – Bill 21, which bars many civil servants from wearing religious symbols, and Bill 96, the new language law that has sparked ire in Quebec’s anglophone community. But they couldn’t corner Mr. Charest, and especially Mr. Poilievre, into saying much about them.

One might have expected the debate to hone in on those things. Bill 96 was just passed. There are clearly Conservatives keen to see their party take a stronger stand against the bills – but they are popular in Quebec.

Mr. Aitchison issued a statement before the debate saying both laws violate the rights of minorities and that he would work with Quebeckers to get them repealed. Mr. Baber and Mr. Brown argued that the laws violate the rights of Quebeckers and said they would pursue legal avenues against them.

But Mr. Poilievre wasn’t making that issue his own. He said he is against Bill 21 but won’t contest it in court. He didn’t take a position on Bill 96. Mr. Charest, who opposed Bill 21, said the federal government should give its opinion on both if they are contested in the Supreme Court. But after the debate, he declined to say if he thinks Bill 96 violates minority rights. “That will be a matter for the courts to examine,” he said.

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