Pat Stacey: Not the right time for bit of bling, Micheal
If the final televised clash of the three big leaders had been a college debating society rather than a battle for the hearts and minds of voters heading for the polling stations on Friday, in all probability Micheal Martin could have emerged the victor.
Few objective observers would deny he's a strong and energetic debater, and last night he seemed to have the better grip on detail -- even if the detail in question happens to be the one he finds so lacking in Fine Gael's five-point plan, which has been kicked around so much during the campaign that a few of the points must be blunt by now.
Still, often what you say on television matters less than how you say it and, perhaps even more importantly, how you look when you say it. Famously, those Americans who watched JFK v Nixon on television called it for Kennedy, while those who followed the debate on radio thought Tricky Dicky was the clear winner.
I don't know if the three men drew straws to determine who sat where, but having Martin placed at the end of the desk, leaning forward, his legs visible and illuminated by a fluorescent blue light, had the weird effect of making him look as if he was wearing jeans below that well-tailored jacket.
Aside from appearance, it's also about delivery and Enda Kenny's delivery, certainly in the opening statements, was impeccable.
What we might have called stiffness a few weeks ago has turned into a quality of stillness and something approaching a statesmanlike aura.
He appears to have been practising his fixed, sympathetic stare in the bathroom mirror and used it to maximum effect in the opening minutes when he looked down the camera and said: "I understand your frustration. I FEEL your anger."
Eamon Gilmore also had stillness to spare. In fact, he was so still in the opening minutes of the debate that he resembled an only slightly animated version of one of his election posters. As the evening wore on, though, and he got the chance to present his party's policies in a more sympathetic light than he's managed up to now, he loosened up considerably.
It's notable that neither Kenny nor Gilmore used their hands a lot in the beginning. Martin, on the other hand -- indeed on both hands -- was gesticulating like Magnus Pyke from the off, and especially during his spirited and effective attacks on Kenny's vague policy on taxation, which managed to land a few blows, though none of them likely to cause a seismic upset to Friday's vote.
At times this had the unfortunate effect, at least from Martin's point of view, of deflecting the viewer's attention away from what he was saying and towards the large, expensive-looking ring that decorated his right hand. Dazzling as this item of jewellery was, it probably wasn't the ideal time for the Fianna Fail leader to bring a bit of bling to the party.
Kenny stuck to the authoritative, faintly regal air he'd adopted at the outset, measuring his words carefully and often looking coolly detached from the squabbling of the men either side of him.
Martin frequently lost the rag and allowed his already fast speaking style to rise to a high-pitched babble. But no matter how much he tried to pick apart Kenny's allegedly woolly policies, he was always throwing his punches from a corner of quicksand.
Kenny might have been vague on details but whenever things threatened to get sticky, all he had to do was fall back on the fact that Martin's government had failed to tell the truth about the IMF coming to town -- and he did it frequently.
As the experts are fond of telling us, once the shouting has died down, live TV debates don't tend to have any significant effect on the election outcome.
Last night was a rare case of knowing the outcome before the shouting had even started.