Andrew Lynch: Martin 2 - Gilmore 1 - Browne 0
VERDICT: FF leader wins as Browne lets him dodge all the big questions
Micheal Martin 2, Eamon Gilmore 1, Vincent Browne 0.
That was the scorecard at the end of TV3's election debate last night, which finally injected some drama into what had been a lacklustre campaign. It was a lively contest that left all sides with plenty of food for thought -- but it could have been even better if the man they call 'Mad Dog' had been allowed off the leash.
Martin won for the simple reason that he was allowed to get away with murder. He dodged responsibility for every mistake made by the outgoing government, as if the Bertie Ahern-Brian Cowen era was all a bad dream.
Instead he went for Gilmore's jugular, putting his opponent on the defensive and tearing plenty of holes in Labour's policy agenda.
Martin likes to remind people that he is the son of an amateur boxing champion who was never once knocked out.
His unspoken message is that while Fianna Fail may be on the ropes in this election, they haven't yet hit the canvas.
This was a highly impressive performance by a man with an incredibly hard neck -- and if it doesn't lift his party's poll numbers, the chances are that nothing will.
Gilmore was not a disaster by any means. He scored best when he spoke in simple language, slamming Martin as part of "a lousy government" and sympathising with workers who have just received their dramatically reduced pay packets. He was calm and steady throughout, refusing to get rattled even when abuse was being hurled at him over the table.
When Gilmore plays back the tape, however, he will groan at all the open goals he somehow managed to miss. Even on slam-dunk issues such as the banking debt, he pulled his punches --possibly because he has become a bit too self-conscious about his 'Mr Angry' image. Above all, he failed to project himself as a possible Taoiseach, which must have left Enda Kenny breathing a huge sigh of relief down in Carrick-on-Shannon.
The biggest disappointment by far was the man in the middle.
Vincent Browne is often capable of generating fireworks in the studio, but here he was reduced to a mere timekeeper.
"I, as moderator, will not be free to follow through on questions," he told us through gritted teeth at the beginning -- which meant that the event might as well have been chaired by weatherman Martin King for all the difference it made. Browne's stony-faced appearance was a sign that he felt deeply frustrated by his restricted role.
He should at least have been allowed to interject occasionally, just as Miriam O'Callaghan was when she hosted the head-to-head between Ahern and Kenny during the 2007 General Election.
By dodging last night's debate, Kenny has created the impression that he is somehow frightened of Browne -- but although 'Mad Dog' has effectively been neutered, Micheal and Eamon will still try to take lumps out of Enda when they eventually get the chance.
So how will last night's slugfest affect the campaign?
In the short term, Martin has given his party's morale a shot in the arm while the Gilmore Gale might be a bit subdued for a while.
And the Labour leader will have plenty of chances to learn from his mistakes. Election 2011 is finally starting to hot up -- and thanks to Martin's victory, the outcome looks just a little less predictable than it did 24 hours ago.