JUST before the debate, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin quipped that he could think of better ways to be spending St Valentine's night, and when it was over only diehard party partisans and the most easily pleased of viewers could disagree.
The studio set-up -- five middle-aged men in suits standing stiffly behind lecterns -- was both old-fashioned and stilted, though the placing of Enda Kenny in the middle, which visually suggested that he was the central figure, worked to his advantage, with John Gormley and Gerry Adams seeming marginal from the outset by being consigned to the sidelines.
In the event, the Fine Gael leader didn't use this visual prominence to dominate the proceedings. Indeed, he spoke less than the other four, and mostly only when he was invited to do so by Pat Kenny.
But it could be argued that he was canny to do so -- as Micheal Martin and Gerry Adams stridently bickered with each other and Eamon Gilmore and John Gormley talked through the host's attempted interventions, he seemed the calmest and most statesmanlike of them, an impression reinforced by his softly modulated delivery.
Eamon Gilmore had failed to land a decisive punch in last week's TV3 debate with Micheal Martin -- who, after all, had been there for the taking as a senior member of the government that had led the country into its current state of chassis -- and he didn't fare much better last night. He didn't make any gaffes, but he didn't register as a commanding presence, either -- certainly not as the man born to be king, which is how he has been portraying himself.
Micheal Martin did himself few favours, either, becoming increasingly petulant as he squabbled with Gerry Adams, while John Gormley -- despite having a lot to say -- seemed almost incidental to the proceedings, as did Adams.
The overall debate, its questions put by audience members, had begun aspirationally, with each of the leaders attempting to establish his credentials as a caring and compassionate human being who was sympathetic to the plight of ordinary people, but it degenerated all too rapidly into a wearying catechism of cliché and tedious point-scoring.
A few good jibes were made -- Enda Kenny providing one of the best when pouncing on platitudinous pledges by Micheal Martin with the riposte that "you'd swear he was never in government".
In fact, it wasn't Micheal's night at all -- when he scoffed that promises by Gerry Adams were the fantasies of a magician who had "one for everyone in the audience", the Sinn Fein leader came back with a better barb about Micheal being Fianna Fail's Paul Daniels.
But Adams sounded merely whingeing when, after Pat Kenny returned to him for a comment, he huffed "I'm glad you got back to me, Pat." Gerry's not used to being ignored.
In general the event was an unedifying affair. If there was a winner -- and it certainly wasn't the fatigued viewer -- it was Enda Kenny, who was the only one of the five who emerged with his image subtly enhanced, which he accomplished by the simple expedient of keeping his cool amid the general clamour.