It's personal: Kenny and Burton to target Martin's 'skeletons'
Rattled Coalition parties to go in hard on Fianna Fáil leader
Fine Gael and the Labour Party are to target Micheál Martin's "skeletons" as concern grows that a resurgent Fianna Fáil will make major electoral gains.
The campaign is to become increasingly personal in the coming days, with an anxious Enda Kenny and Joan Burton both seeking to stop Mr Martin's comeback.
Sources in both coalition parties accept Fianna Fáil has won the first full week of the campaign. But now they intend to continually dredge up the leader's 14 years as a minister.
"Micheál Martin looked extremely vulnerable on crime and health during the televised debate," said a Fine Gael source.
"He admitted that they (FF) mothballed Templemore and then tried to blame us for the garda numbers being down. We want people to see through that."
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The Labour Party has been rattled by its poor poll ratings and has now also set its sights on what strategists are describing as Mr Martin's "con-job coalition".
One said: "He's trying to pull off a very slick con-job. First, he pretends Fianna Fáil can form a government - but unless he breaks from what he has previously said, that's a con-job.
"The second con-job is his claims that he helped lay the groundwork for the recovery. He resigned from the Government and left Brian Lenihan in the lurch."
The drastic response comes as Mr Martin is widely seen to have won the first debate on Thursday, albeit by a small margin.
His performance has surprised many within Fine Gael and Labour, who increasingly see the Cork TD's party as a far more relevant threat than Sinn Féin.
But a Fianna Fáil source insisted: "The mud they are slinging at Micheál Martin is the same old predictable stuff.
"We are more than happy to fight on health. We're creating space beyond Fine Gael's two slogans."
The Irish Independent has also learned that Fianna Fáil intends to ask RTÉ to operate a 'closed mic' system during Monday's debate because they feel Mr Kenny and Gerry Adams attempted to shout over Mr Martin at key moments.
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A Fianna Fail strategist said: "The dynamic we wanted was to draw comparisons between Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny as potential Taoisigh.
"As a tactic, Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams stood back every time Micheál talked about non-controversial issues but started shouting at uncomfortable moments for them.
"On the Special Criminal Court, Adams just started shouting random stuff in the hope of mixing the sound. He wasn't trying to make a point, just trying to drown Micheál out. The Taoiseach tried a similar tactic on health."
Party chiefs are set to meet with RTÉ ahead of Monday's debate in the University of Limerick to tease out the format.
"Certainly, we'll be making the point that we don't want a repeat," the FF source said.
Fine Gael is set to ramp up its focus on the economy in advance of February 26, believing that most voters won't fully engage until the final seven days of campaigning.
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Along with Labour, they will point to the political volatility in Portugal in a bid to shore up support for the outgoing Coalition. Last night, Finance Minister Michael Noonan said political instability led to economic instability.
"Like Ireland, Portugal was making economic progress. But interest rates on Portuguese 10-year debt have doubled to over 4pc in recent weeks as international investors have baulked at the policies of the new coalition Government," he said.
"Portugal has been forced to table almost €1bn in additional tax increases to avoid becoming the first eurozone government to have its budget rejected by the European Commission."