MICHEAL Martin appeared to be unusually popular yesterday. As he walked around the streets of Wexford town and New Ross, men and women stopped to shake his hand.
"Well done, you were great," said one. "You did really well," another told him.
So what event had sparked their admiration? Were they struck by his masterful grasp of issues in the TG4 debate as Gaeilge perhaps? Or were they impressed by recent polls which reveal him to be the most popular leader even though his party is circling the drain?
Nope. They were giving him the thumbs-up for the fact that he had entered the lion's den the previous night -- the set of 'Tonight with Vincent Browne' -- and emerged without either lumps taken out of him or without having been goaded into losing the plot in a volcanic and career-threatening fashion.
Folk were seriously impressed Mickey Blue-Eyes had taken on the Godfather of Goad after Vincent had left some of his political colleagues like Conor Lenihan and Joan Burton sleeping with the fishes.
"I'm amazed how often it came up on the walkabout," remarked Micheal later. "The thing to remember is not to rise to the bait," he explained.
But that's easier said than done in this increasingly fractious election campaign in which the two main contenders, Fine Gael and Labour, have been trading heavy blows, egged on by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein who are only too happy to stir up trouble in coalition paradise.
Even the Greens have joined in for the fun of it.
For while Micheal was canvassing in a fairly hospitable part of the country yesterday, the mud was still flying in Dublin, with a war of words/tweets breaking out between Brian Lenihan and the Greens' Dan Boyle over former banker Michael Fingleton's big pension pot, culminating in the Finance Minister declaring it was "time to quit the political flapdoodle of the election campaign".
Had Micheal ever heard of a flapdoodle? He looked dubious.
He knows that Brian is an erudite chap, but also one who hails from a distinctly colourful family given to the odd foray into la-la language land.
"In fairness to the Lenihans, they have the capacity to create new words from time to time," he said diplomatically.
But despite his desire to reject all proffered bait, Micheal did rise to the defence of the Finance Minister.
"The bona fides of Brian Lenihan are beyond question in relation to this issue, and Brian is very consistent right throughout this in terms of saying what's possible and what's not possible. I think Dan's tweet was wrong, he shouldn't have said what he said, I don't think it can be justified or stood up," he stated.
Nor could he resist having a dig at the ongoing scrap between Fine Gael and Labour.
"What we're witnessing at the moment is a widening chasm between Fine Gael and Labour," he sniped.
But mostly yesterday he was content to make a few forays out of the bunker and on to the battleground to canvass in Wexford with Sean Connick and John Browne who have a fight on their hands in this five-seater. The crowded field includes three Fine Gael candidates, two Labour and the dark horse of Independent Mick Wallace.
And perhaps the locals thought that Micheal had been sufficiently through the wringer on TV3, but he met with minimal flak on his perambulations through the two towns.
While talking to local supporters in a coffee shop in Wexford, Micheal was approached by a couple who asked him for his autograph for their five children -- but these five were Ireland's first quintuplets.
And so while Micheal signed a page for now nine-year old Conor, Cian, Rory, Dearbhail and Amy, their parents Kevin and Veronica Cassidy explained they had come into town to meet him.
"Micheal was Health Minister in 2001 and we got great support from him," said Veronica.
Out on the street Micheal did all the usual canvass things. He bought two bars of dark chocolate in a chocolate shop (it's the one sweet treat which the famously healthy eater allows himself), pots of jam (blackberry and cherry) in a bakery and popped in to a hair salon.
"I'm as embarrassed as I've ever been," scolded a mortified woman sitting with wet hair.
He also visited a childcare community centre in Taghmon, where former county hurler and footballer Andy Doyle put the new party leader straight on a few things.
"Fine Gael have a great saying, 'I was talking to a woman'. Sure I was talking to a woman and she told me the cat had kittens and she blamed Fianna Fail for that.
"I understand that they made mistakes but Fianna Fail gets blamed for everything," he told Micheal.
In New Ross, Micheal got up on the stage of St Michael's Theatre to address about 80 party supporters.
Disconcertingly the stage was filled with the set for Joseph O'Connor's play, 'Red Roses and Petrol' and so he addressed his audience amid a sittingroom and a table of empty beer-bottles. "I like treading the boards," he said.
But his party is playing to half-empty houses and the curtain's about to come down on the careers of many of his supporting players.
What play will Micheal Martin be starring in this day next week when the votes are counted? 'Death of a Salesman' or 'All's Well That Ends Well'?
See Comment: Pages 28-31