EAMON Gilmore will tonight make a desperate attempt to scare voters about the prospect of savage Fine Gael cuts as he goes head-to-head with Enda Kenny for the first time in a leaders' TV debate.
The Labour leader is expected to warn that voting in a single-party FG government could lead to frontline public sector staff such as nurses, teachers and gardai losing their jobs.
After campaigning heavily on the slogan of "Gilmore for Taoiseach", his party is now faced with the prospect of being excluded from government altogether unless Labour can halt Mr Kenny's rise.
Support for Labour dropped to 20pc in the latest opinion poll, whereas FG on 38pc is within reach of being able to form a single-party government.
The last time this happened was Fianna Fail's victory in the 1977 General Election.
Mr Gilmore is under intense pressure to score a victory in tonight's leaders' debate after he was widely seen to have lost last week's encounter with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.
But he said he would welcome the opportunity to put forward his party's policies and denied he would personally target Mr Kenny.
Mr Kenny is flying to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel today about the need to renegotiate the EU-IMF bailout deal and to retain our low rate of corporation tax.
Mr Martin dismissed it yesterday as a "photo opportunity" to make Mr Kenny look prime-ministerial.
When the Fine Gael leader returns from Berlin, he will have to travel to the RTE studios in Donnybrook to face his biggest test of the election campaign so far in the five-way leaders' debate at 9.30pm.
There was still no final format last night, but all five leaders are expected to have to stand for the 90-minute debate and take questions from members of the live studio audience.
RTE 'Frontline' host Pat Kenny will control the time allocated to each leader, amid suggestions that they will have around 45 seconds each to answer the questions.
Mr Kenny, who refused to take part in last week's leaders' debate on TV3, said he was not worried about other leaders going after him. "I understand they are coming after me. They haven't stopped that for a very long time," he said.
He insisted yesterday there would be no complacency from his party on foot of the ever-improving opinion polls and that it would continue to "run this election very hard".
But he refused to be drawn on whether Fine Gael was now destined for an overall majority or if he had a preference for doing a deal with like-minded Independents over Labour.
Fine Gael can expect to get around 70 seats with 35pc of the vote, but would need to push its support levels to above 40pc to have a chance of heading for an historic overall majority of seats in the 166-seat Dail.
Although Labour is itself proposing 18,000 public sector redundancies, a spokesman said yesterday there was no way Fine Gael could achieve 30,000 public sector redundancies without affecting frontline posts.
Mr Gilmore warned yesterday of the danger of frontline redundancies if either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail got into power.
"How many extra teachers are they going to take out of classrooms, how many extra nurses are they going to take out of hospitals, how many guards are they going to remove from our streets and how many county council workers who should be out clearing roads are going to be taken out of the system?" he asked.
All parties are now grappling with the warning from the European Commission that the State may have to find an extra €5bn to reduce the budget deficit to 3pc of GDP in the next three years.
It had been forecast that €15bn in cuts would be enough to reach the target.
But the EC said that €5bn in further cuts could be needed to restore stability to the public finances due to slow economic growth over the next four years.
So far, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have said that they plan to meet the 3pc target by the end of 2014.
FINE Gael's best-looking bachelor has swapped romantic dinners by candlelight for speed dating this St Valentine's Day. John Paul Phelan will meet scores of women today, but instead of sharing wine and chocolates, they will be having tea and biscuits.