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Lise Hand: Last-minute realpolitik takes the bite out of le crunch

IT looked as if a bit of debate fatigue had set in by the time the fourth leaders' debate rolled around last night.

This is usually the Big One -- the crucial crunch showdown between the outgoing and the wannabe Taoiseach which is hyped as the mightiest rumble since Ali and Foreman knocked lumps out of each other in the jungle and a death-match upon which the very outcome of the looming election depends.

But last night there wasn't much of a buzz about the forecourt of the Montrose station as the three leaders arrived just before 9pm -- Eamon Gilmore first, Enda second, and Micheal last, as has been his habit over the course of the four debates (he miscalculated in TG4 by arriving second, but then left Enda and Eamon cooling their heels in the studio until he eventually strolled in).

And yet it was an important set piece for Eamon and Enda in particular -- the Fine Gael leader needed not to skid spectacularly on any banana-skins and Eamon needed to consolidate a vote which was settling down after a bit of a wobble.

But most of the pre-game anticipation centered around how soon Enda would mention his beloved Five Point Plan -- would it be in the first 30 seconds, or would he wait a whole 60 seconds?

As it happened, that honour was taken from him, for in his opening statement Micheal Martin scoffed at the "big promises and empty slogans" which were being made in the campaign.

"I'm not going to spend the next 90 minutes repeating election soundbites or promoting a five-point plan," declared Magpie Micheal before he also snaffled Eamon's new soundbite, "le cheile".

Enda -- buoyed perhaps by the latest poll (in today's Irish Independent) -- was the most relaxed from the start, while Micheal and Eamon bickered with each other from either side.

After Micheal waffled his way through an answer on the interest rate charged on the IMF/EU loan, Enda stuck a laconic boot into his reply.

"If it wasn't so serious, I'd be amused by what I've heard here," he sniped, before a little later having the temerity to dismiss the Fianna Fail leader as being "full of wind and spoof".

He also steadfastly refused to look in Micheal's direction when the Fianna Fail leader was trying to pick several fights, and even had a few zingers he'd prepared earlier, deploring the number of Fianna Fail-created quangos.

"Many of these quangos are sons of quangos and daughters of quangos."

Micheal was the most wound-up of the three men, and was hunched over the desk as if ready to spring at any moment.

Enda and Eamon were conspicuously cosy -- perhaps realpolitik is setting in as coalition with Fine Gael looms closer.

But their reluctance to fall on each other with knives took a lot of heat out of this last debate.

Irish Independent