Lise Hand: Martin circles the wagons as he moves into heart of Kenny country
IT'S the loneliness of a long-distance, Micheal. He may still be semi-swaddled in the relieved satisfaction (rather than noisy acclamation) which surrounded his election to the leadership of a Fianna Fail in freefall, and he may be basking in the post-fight plaudits heaped on him after he boxed clever against Eamon Gilmore in the TV3 debate -- but Micheal Martin isn't fooled by it all.
In this election the Soldiers of Destiny are on the ropes. It's a party on the canvas, as opposed to on the canvass.
After three turbulent years of confusion, ineptitude and economic collapse, even the ever-loyal grassroots have turned their face away from Fianna Fail, more than 20 TDs have raised the white flag before the shooting commences, and a grim parade of opinion polls foretell a bloody day of reckoning on February 25 when a wrathful electorate will take their revenge.
But Micheal doesn't need to pore over the polls to know the immensity of the task ahead of him. Which is why this campaign is, for him, only partly about winning new voters. That's reaching for the stars.
Instead he's trying to circle the wagons to minimise the damage on their depleted forces come election day.
And on this hard pilgrimage Micheal is setting out on the long, long road of wooing back the AWOL troops. This is really what the Fianna Fail leader's tour is about.
Yesterday, he ventured into Kenny country, visiting the Mayo towns of Ballina and Claremorris.
The county is a Fine Gael stronghold, with Enda, Michael Ring and John O'Mahony in situ, and with Michelle Mulherin and Labour candidate Jerry Crowley added to the ticket, Fianna Fail have a fight on their hands to retain Dara Calleary's seat and take a second with new candidate Lisa Chambers, although the retirement of the formidable Beverley Flynn had made the task a little easier for the party.
But still the hard yards have to be done. Micheal began his day in Ballina at the launch of the party's tourism strategy in the rather zen Ice Hotel, nestled by the roaring river Foy.
Flanked by the two candidates and also Marc MacSharry, who's running in neighbouring Sligo-North Leitrim, Micheal carefully reads out his party's policies -- this wouldn't be a topic that falls within his area of expertise, and he picked his way gingerly through the questions put to him on the extension of the Section 481 film investment relief, and providing more funding for the stricken tourism sector.
And then it was off for a brisk walk to see some of Ballina's delights. Dara proudly took him over a new bridge over the river.
"It's the most prolific salmon river in Ireland," declared Dara. "I'm here for a bit of wisdom," Micheal replied wryly.
And he is on something of a steep learning curve. One week he's a government minister, the next he's a backbencher and the next he's a party leader on the campaign trail, sitting awkwardly in a spanking new theatre in Mayo on his own as the cameras click and whirr.
It's clear he's still a bit unsettled to find himself in the eye of the media maelstrom which dogs every steps and records every utterance of party leaders on the hustings.
He's a bit self-conscious in the spotlight. He has a nice way about him when he meets people -- a firm handshake, with a Bill Clinton-style of gentle elbow-grip with the other hand, and he looks them directly in the eye as he introduces himself and the two candidates. But he hasn't yet mastered the essential art of campaign small talk.
Brian Cowen never could, while Bertie was a master at it, greeting everyone with a cheery: "There y'are now, the hard-working man/woman", as he sped by in a flurry of handshakes.
"It does take a bit of getting used to," Martin admitted as he toured a near-empty SuperValu in Ballina.
Unlike his more brazen counterparts, he hesitates at interrupting the few people going about their business and hovers shyly and tongue-tied near the tills, or at the deli counters.
Most people shake his hand, a few pointedly refuse to but here, deep in the heart of Kenny country, he experiences very little outright hostility.
One woman, Pauline Reilly, gives him the thumbs-up.
"You did well in the debate," she said. But after he'd moved on, she wasn't convinced that he could save his party. "Ooh, I don't know," she said as she shook her head.
He brightened when he did a quick tour of Molloy's Natural pharmacy.
"I used to work in a chemist-shop when I was 14," he confided.
He had worked in O'Leary's chemist on Grand Parade in Cork. "As a messenger boy, stacking shelves, that kind of thing," he explained.
Micheal did a supermarket sweep through a rain-swept Ballina and Claremorris, but met remarkably few people. The shops were empty and, in truth, his heart wasn't in it.
But he also used the tour to address the party faithful at the two stops, with speeches in two hotel rooms packed with starry-eyed grey-haired women.
"I won't wash my hand for a week!" giggled one after shaking Micheal's hand. There were also grizzled farmers there, but precious few young folk.
"I know you're fighting up against the wind," he told them, "but you know, there's many an All-Ireland we won in Cork fighting against the wind," he added to laughter.
Micheal is in the eye of the howling tempest, and he's miles to go before he sleeps.