Andrew Lynch: Policies matter but it's the face on the posters that counts with voters
In his farewell speech to the Dail yesterday, Brian Cowen urged people to think of policies instead of personalities before deciding how to vote. Some chance.
The reality is that the five party leaders and their performances will have a massive influence on how this election unfolds -- and with so many different characters in the mix, we should see plenty of entertaining clashes between now and February 25.
In fact, the ultimate outcome could be determined by one simple question -- how do you feel about Enda Kenny being your Taoiseach? The latest opinion polls confirm that this election is Fine Gael's to lose, but they also suggest that the party leader's unpopularity is the one reason why they might lose it.
While FG's stirring new campaign video portrays the Mayo man as a James Bond superhero taking on our creditors in Brussels, the majority of voters still see him as a hapless Fr Dougal Maguire figure who just doesn't have enough charisma to lead the country.
After eight years of an intense work schedule that has often restricted him to four hours' sleep a night, the next few weeks will make or break Kenny. The self-styled "captain of a team" must finally show that he wants the ball himself, ditching his usual strategy of leaving the tough media interviews to Michael Noonan or other frontbenchers. No matter what form the television debates take, he knows he will be under intense pressure to perform better than he did in 2007 -- and if he makes even the slightest gaffe, his enemies will be quick to pounce.
Micheal Martin has exactly the opposite problem. The new leader on the block has got off to a flying start, jumping straight to the top of the popularity polls. However, those same polls show no evidence that replacing Bulldog Biffo with the Cork Choirboy has done anything to convince the public that they should give Fianna Fail one more chance.
The size of Martin's face on the FF posters suggests that he will run a presidential-type campaign, hoping that his appealing personality will pay dividends for the party on polling day.
After almost 14 years at the cabinet table, trying to dodge his share of responsibility for the death of the Celtic Tiger will not be an easy task, even for this smooth talker. Still, his sheer energy has certainly given FF's morale a badly needed boost -- and at least he has the consolation of knowing that the only way is up.
Eamon Gilmore has a real dilemma. He desperately wants to be Taoiseach, but Labour may have peaked too soon. The obvious way for him to get back in the game is to take on Enda Kenny -- but that would mean jeopardising his relationship with the man he'll almost certainly have to form a coalition with after the election.
Labour are planning to push their leader hard during the campaign, with posters openly urging people to vote 'Gilmore for Taoiseach'. On his day, he is capable of tapping into the public's anger much better than any of his rivals. However, he must also avoid being seen as a one-man band -- and recent media gaffes by Joan Burton and Pat Rabbitte have done nothing to help his cause.
The smaller parties have their own embarrassing leadership issues to deal with. Gerry Adams has come south to lead a Sinn Fein crusade, but his complete ignorance of economics in the Republic means he embarrasses his colleagues every time he opens his mouth.
Meanwhile, John Gormley's last-ditch attempt to block the Poolbeg incinerator suggests he will be too busy saving his own seat in Dublin South-East to prevent the electorate from dumping the Greens in the recycling bin.
A general election is obviously much more than a personality contest. Rightly or wrongly, however, the face on the poster matters. Between now and polling day, these five men are set to dominate the public debate -- and when the votes are counted, there will be far more losers than winners.