FINE Gael leader Enda Kenny, who is virtually certain to become Taoiseach, last night starkly warned that everybody will suffer from the taxes and cuts needed to repair the economy.
Mr Kenny wasn't the strongest performer as he squared up in last night's five-way party leaders' TV debate as the campaign swung into its crucial final 10 days.
He had a moment of uncertainty on economic growth rates, but his rivals failed to land a knockout blow on the Fine Gael leader.
He only came under intense pressure once -- over the economy -- in the course of the 90-minute debate.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore targeted Mr Kenny in an attempt to halt Fine Gael's charge towards an overall majority. Mr Gilmore homed in on Fine Gael's budgetary plans, claiming there was a €5bn black hole and that the party's proposals would hamper economic growth.
But Mr Kenny again succeeded in branding Labour a high-tax party and criticised its plan to extend the reduction of the deficit by another two years.
During robust exchanges between the prospective coalition parties, Mr Gilmore accused Mr Kenny of taking almost €10bn out of the economy.
He pressed Mr Kenny on the specific growth rate Fine Gael was projecting.
Mr Kenny described it as "just over 3pc".
But when addressing the cuts required to restore the public finances, he warned: "Everybody has got to suffer here. Everybody has got to cut back."
He committed to no increase in income taxes rates or the bands.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin continued his aggressive approach to the debates, which he began in the first encounter with Mr Gilmore last week.
Mr Martin had a number of spats with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who repeatedly took a battering on his party's policy of claiming the country can be funded without the EU-IMF bailout.
"You're a bit of a magician if you can pull that off," he said.
Mr Gilmore repeatedly stressed his party did not support the bank guarantee in September 2008 -- unlike all the other parties, including Sinn Fein.
"It was the biggest bank robbery in the history of this country and it was the banks that robbed the people," he said.
Fine Gael strategists believe a large number of former Fianna Fail voters are eyeing up voting for Fine Gael, rather than the Labour Party when they make their choice.
And these voters would prefer to see Fine Gael in government on its own, instead of a coalition with Labour.
"The debate is important. They want some reassurance Enda Kenny is okay. If he does that, he'll give us a boost," a senior party source said.
Mr Kenny will this morning seek to stretch his party's lead in the 2011 General Election with a series of pledges for small businesses and consumers.
After returning from a whistlestop meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Fine Gael leader made his first appearance of the campaign in a debate after staying away from last week's opener.
Mr Kenny will publish all his party's policies this morning when he launches Fine Gael's election manifesto.
In another positive sign for Fine Gael, rural voters abandoning Fianna Fail are switching in large numbers to Mr Kenny's party, a poll carried out by the 'Farming Independent' has found.
The survey of rural voter intentions reveals just 16pc of respondents would give their first preference vote to Fianna Fail, compared with 38pc who indicated support for Fine Gael.
Comment and Analysis
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.