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Sam Smyth: Parties playing for high stakes in TV showdown

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The bickering over a format for the televised leadership deb-ates yesterday looked like the beginning of a slow bicycle race as the parties took positions and plotted strategy.

It was the first dust-up of what is set to be an all-party bruising encounter -- but a showdown on television has the potential to critically influence the outcome of the general election.

A good or bad performance can sway the perception of a politician at any time but in the white heat of a general election it can determine the make-up of the next government.

Nearly everything is at stake: leaders can be exalted or broken and political parties can slump or leapfrog into a coalition.

Micheal Martin wants a three-way debate between the leaders of the three largest parties -- Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Labour Party -- as the centrepiece of his party's election campaign.

He had prepared letters detailing his plans for the televised debates before he was elected leader of Fianna Fail on Wednesday and they were dispatched to the other party leaders later that evening.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny immediately ruled out a three-way debate between himself, Mr Martin and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore.

Mr Kenny would prefer a five-leader debate to include the Green Party and Sinn Fein. Mr Martin was in no position to dictate the format of any election debate, said Mr Kenny, alluding to Fianna Fail's disastrous 14pc standing in the opinion polls.

The Labour Party is saying 'bring it on' after proposing a three-leader debate last year and Mr Gilmore is ready to take on all comers, according to a party spokesman.

It is hardly surprising that the Green Party, like Sinn Fein, wants the debates broadened out beyond the three parties and welcomes Mr Kenny's call for "inclusiveness" in the debates.

The parties have already been negotiating with RTE, TV3 and Sky while talks have progressed with TG4 for a debate in the Irish language.

Mr Martin's letter to the other party leaders emphasises the importance of the politicians setting the terms for the debate, rather than the television companies and the media.

Hammering out a format with the television companies will not be an easy task: the rules for the three-way leaders' debates on British television before last year's election ran to 76 points under 15 headings.

The British deal ran to four-and-a-half pages -- but the US agreement in 2004 for the presidential debate ran to 32 pages.

Mr Kenny is being accused of trying to avoid a televised confrontation with the leaders of Fianna Fail and the Labour Party because he is not an adept television performer.

His lack of communications skills was one of the reasons given by younger party colleagues when they tried to dump him as leader of Fine Gael last year.

However, because expectation of him is so low, if he avoids dropping a serious clanger, mere competence will be judged as a great success.

Mr Martin's communications skills were one of the reasons why he won the election for leader of Fianna Fail and he is particularly good at doing empathy on television.

And Mr Gilmore has consistently scored with his performances on radio and television but he also knows when to say 'no' to an invitation to a TV studio.

The Labour Party leader declined to appear with the other Dail candidates for Dun Laoghaire on RTE's 'Frontline' programme recently.

"He had a lot to lose if something went wrong and correspondingly little to gain from the 'Frontline' show," said one media adviser, who added that Fine Gael are hiding Mr Kenny away for the same reason.

Yet low expectations benefited both Gordon Brown in the British election last year and George Bush in the 2004 US presidential election.

And there was a consensus that Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib-Dems in Britain, won the leaders' debate in last year's election -- but there was no corresponding hike in the party's vote.

In the 2007 General Election, Michael McDowell, then leader of the PDs, trounced Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on the economy -- yet Mr McDowell lost his seat and Sinn Fein won five.

There is no such thing as a knock-out blow in a television debate: it can only be won on points, with the outcome decided by media pundits, political lobbyists and public reaction.

Politicians are often over-prepared going into debates and forget that some of the most memorable moments in previous debates have been spontaneous.

The most famous soundbite was delivered in a US vice-presidential debate in 1988, when the Democrat Lloyd Bentsen addressed Dan Quayle who had just compared himself to John F Kennedy.

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy," said Bentsen.

"I knew Jack Kennedy. He was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

His non-response forever cast Dan Quayle as a political joke.

US communications consultant Frank Luntz recalled a comedian's quip about the famous response: "What did Marilyn Monroe say to Dan Quayle after making love to him? "You're no Jack Kennedy."

Irish Independent