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Lise Hand: Enda the king of cool in Eastside Story

OH my god, who chilled Enda? A noticeable calm has descended over the Fine Gael leader in the past few days. Not even the sudden appearance of Eamon Gilmore across a rainy street in Loughrea yesterday afternoon could turn one of the well-pressed hairs on his head.

These sort of chance encounters don't generally happen on the campaign trail, though of course sometimes there are carefully choreographed meetings, such as the "oh-it's-yourself-how's-she-cuttin" rendez- vous between Enda and then-Labour leader Pat Rabbitte on the streets of Kilkenny during the 2007 General Election.

Ah but that was in the heady days of the Mullingar Accord. Now, as our outgoing Taoiseach was wont to say, we are where we are.

Yesterday afternoon the Fine Gael gang (Jets) had been in situ for quite some time as Enda and his four candidates for Galway-East did a bit of a soapbox rally for the local supporters, when suddenly a gang of Labour workers (Sharks) appeared across the road.

Minutes later a car bearing a big picture of the smiling face of the Labour leader pulled up, and out hopped Eamon.

Goodness. The pair had been hacking at each other on the RTE debate the previous night, so would they kiss and make up on the rain-soaked boulevard? Was there to be a Loughrea Love-in, or an Eastside Story dance-off between the rival political gangs? What would happen? The posse of media were agog.

Enda was sheltering from the rain and talking to a reporter in the doorway of a pub and failed to even glance over towards the hive of Labour red-jacketed activity across the street.

So what did Eamon do? In keeping with the intemperate weather, he chose to give Fine Gael the cold shoulder. There was to be no Galway grip-and-grin. Instead, a brisk Eamon turned to his campaign staff.

"What are we waiting for, let's go," he declared and wheeled (left) up the street at a quick clip.

And Enda just kept calm and carried on. There's a new air of confidence about him in the past few days. He seems more measured, less inclined to get flustered, he's tripped up less often by curveball questions, and is more relaxed in the glare of the cameras and microphones.

He emerged intact from the RTE debate on Monday night and was quite sanguine about having one TV talking-shop down and two to go (today's TG4 debate and next week's final three-way on RTE).

"In a way they're like church gates you know, we used to do all the church gates years ago, and if you didn't do them, you'd think you'd missed something critical. And in all the church gates that I ever did, I'm not sure that I converted a single soul," he remarked.

Enda was speaking at the launch of the party's manifesto in Dublin yesterday morning, and he dealt with a range of questions with a degree of assurance. When, in the words of Larry Gogan, the questions didn't suit him, Enda simply handed the mic over to one of his team -- Michael Noonan, Richard Bruton or Phil Hogan -- instead of trying to spoof his way through a half-baked reply.

And afterwards he hit the road to the west, stopping in Ballinasloe and Loughrea for quick rallies with the local ground troops. With both sitting Fine Gael TDs Paul Connaughton and Ulick Burke having retired, the party is running four candidates, including councillor Paul Connaughton Jr and The Last PD, Senator Ciaran Cannon.

But Enda won't talk victory, not yet. He warned against showing any "swagger" out on the canvass and reminded everyone it's been 28 years since Fine Gael won an election at the ballot box.

"You are less than 100 feet from the summit of this mountain, it takes effort to get to the highest pinnacle, and when you stand up there, you stand there because you got there on your own and nobody can take it from you," he said fiercely.

He doesn't want to get vertigo now. All he can do is keep looking up.

Nearly there at last.

Irish Independent