OTTAWA, March 18 (Reuters) - Quebec's governing Parti Quebecois, whose ultimate goal is to take the province out of the Canadian federation, is falling behind in the runup to the April 7 provincial election, a poll on Tuesday showed, with the federalist vote solidifying around the opposition Liberals.
The poll showed the shift to the Liberals, and away from the smaller Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), came after powerful Quebec business figure Pierre Karl Peladeau said he would run in the election for the Parti Quebecois. He said starkly that his reason for doing so was to make Quebec a country.
That remark brought the issue of Quebec independence, which separatist Premier Pauline Marois had been soft-pedaling during the campaign, into sharp focus.
The CROP poll, published in La Presse, put the provincial Liberals up three points from a week earlier at 39 percent support and the CAQ down four points at 13 percent. The Parti Quebecois stayed at 36 percent.
While the CAQ opposes holding a referendum on sovereignty, it has sought to distinguish itself from the Liberals with an emphasis on fiscal rectitude. But its focus on the economy has now been overshadowed by the debate on independence.
Peladeau is the controlling shareholder and former chief executive of media empire Quebecor Inc, and many initially saw his decision to run for the Parti Quebecois as a big catch for the separatists.
The CROP poll is an Internet survey, which is not fully random as is a telephone poll. It covered 1,400 people from March 12-16, and the data was weighted for sex, age, region, language and education.
The same poll found that 64 percent did not want the Parti Quebecois to proceed with a referendum on sovereignty, but 67 percent thought it would do so if it won a majority of seats in the election.
Canada escaped breakup in 1995 when a referendum in Quebec on separation lost by 1.2 percentage points. A similar vote in 1980 lost by 59.6 percent to 40.4 percent. (Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)