Quebec’s party leaders will face off in the first televised debate of this spring campaign Thursday night, a day after a new CTV / Ipsos Reid poll put the Liberals five points ahead of the Parti Quebecois as voters appear to be put off by referendum talk.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault and Francoise David of Quebec Solidaire will have two hours to appeal to voters, entirely in French. and CTV News Channel will carry the Quebec leaders’ debate Thursday at 8 p.m. ET

The PQ carried the most momentum into the campaign. The extensive focus on a potential referendum should Marois win a majority has put off voters, among whom there is little appetite for a renewed conversation about sovereignty.

A CTV News/Ipsos Reid poll released Wednesday gave the Liberals a five-point lead over the PQ, with decided voters saying that if an election were held tomorrow, 37 per cent would support the Liberals and 32 per cent would support the PQ.

Only 30 per cent of voters said they are in favour of sovereignty, while some 72 per cent said they believe that a vote for the PQ is a vote for a referendum on separation.

The PQ’s polling numbers were stronger at the outset of the campaign when the focus was on the party’s proposed charter of values, which would ban overt religious symbols from most public institutions.

But the party’s fortunes changed when media baron Pierre Karl Peladeau entered the race and declared himself a sovereigntist.

“The game really changed recently with the debate being less about the charter of values and more about the referendum,” pollster Luc Durand told CTV News.

“And I think because support for the referendum is very low, there are a lot of people who were afraid of this that moved consequently to the Liberals. But the PQ should have the objective in changing the conversation.”

Marois can begin changing the conversation during Thursday’s debate.

Sebastien Dallaire, vice-president of public affairs for Leger Marketing, says his firm’s polling put support for a referendum as low as 20 per cent. The economy, job creation, health care and sound management of taxpayers’ dollars are among the key issues for voters, “like elsewhere in Canada,” Dallaire told CTV’s Canada AM.

Marois has an advantage in that more voters see her as the best premier among all the leaders, Dallaire said.

“But now she might have to be a bit more on the attack” during the debate, he said. “You can’t be too cozy and relaxed when you’re seen to be the one losing momentum. So it’s going to be a fine balance between looking in control and at the same time trying to score some points.”

Couillard, meanwhile, should focus on convincing voters that “he could become a premier,” Dallaire said. According to Leger’s data, Francophone voters still view Marois as the best leader, so Couillard should target them.

“If he can make headway on that front, it will be a big boost for him,” Dallaire said.

The leaders will have another chance to make a televised pitch to voters in a second French-language debate next week. There will not be an English-language debate.