Wednesday 19 December 2018

Andrew Lynch: Kenny avoids pitfalls to keep nose in front as vote nears

Enda Kenny is still standing.

That's the most important outcome of last night's debate, during which the man who jokingly compared himself to Muhammad Ali often looked a little punch drunk.

The Fine Gael leader's narrow loss on points won't stop him from becoming Taoiseach -- but it might just mark the moment when his dream of an overall majority faded away for good.

The final slugfest of the campaign was also a preview of how the next Dail is likely to operate.

Kenny is trying hard to look like a statesman, while Micheal Martin is acting as a ferociously aggressive leader of the opposition.

Eamon Gilmore has slipped comfortably into the role of Tanaiste, standing his ground but usually deferring to the man who's going to be his boss.

As a television programme, the Prime Time sit-down format was a big improvement on the Weakest Link snorefest that Pat Kenny hosted on last week's Frontline.

With the dead wood of Gerry Adams and John Gormley cleared away, Miriam O'Callaghan allowed the three main contenders to really get stuck into each other.

At 90 minutes, it was definitely too long, however, particularly as voters are probably suffering from debate fatigue at this stage.

Kenny seemed extremely tense, which was hardly surprising given that he had most to lose.


He did well when he was allowed time to speak, selling his famous five-point plan and using human stories to tug at the nation's heart-strings.

However, he was also badly exposed on points of detail when Martin put him under pressure.

Overall, FG will be relieved that their man didn't fall flat on his face -- but disappointed that he didn't deliver the kind of commanding performance that would have carried the party's momentum into the final 48 hours of the campaign.

If this had been a university debating contest, Micheal Martin would have won hands down.

However, the Fianna Fail leader was probably a bit too combative for his own good, constantly needling the others and even criticising O'Callaghan for interrupting him.

That kind of behaviour turns floating voters off -- which left him looking like a kamikaze pilot who does some damage to the enemy but blows himself up in the process.

Martin's fate now depends on how many of FF's traditional supporters he can persuade to take pity on him and turn out on Friday.

Last night's showing might just have helped him in that regard, although it was striking that he couldn't bring himself to say the words 'Fianna Fail' even once.

Gilmore saved his best until last, appearing strong and steady throughout.

He also saved Kenny's bacon on more than one occasion, landing verbal blows on his FF opponent just as Martin seemed to be getting the upper hand.

Although the Labour leader never said anything spectacular, he was the calmest of the three and may well have done himself the most good.

Gilmore has made a smart move this week by effectively admitting that he won't be Taoiseach and appealing to voters for a balanced government instead.

The latest opinion poll still leaves a lot of questions to be answered.

Can FG really make a final push for single-party government? Have Labour done enough to secure their place in a coalition? Are some FF voters lying to the pollsters, giving them a shot at second place?

These debates have given Kenny, Gilmore and Martin more than enough opportunities to make their case. Now it's time for the judges to consider their verdict.

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