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Gene Kerrigan: Martin is on the front foot - but it takes three to tango

THE reporter was only halfway through the question when a smile began to form on Micheal Martin's lips. This was an easy one. There was a time when it would have been an awkward question, but now he's the undisputed leader of Fianna Fail he doesn't have to worry about offending former bigshots.

In the list of failures of Fianna Fail's long reign, asked the reporter, where did Micheal Martin rank the failure to construct the Bertie Bowl? Mr Martin's smile was now wide. It was an inclusive smile -- inviting us all in on the joke. And the joke was Bertie Ahern -- the man who declared that his greatest regret is the failure to build that cherished "infrastructural stadium".

The new Fianna Fail leader had come to Ballina to launch the party's latest tourism strategy. At times his answers to questions about tourism wandered into baffling jargon. After one answer, a puzzled reporter said: "Can I ask you what that means?"

This question, though -- he knew he could hit this one right out of the park. Where does the Bertie Bowl rank? "It doesn't rank at all," he said, immediately, firmly, and the smile became open laughter.

This was daring stuff. Traditionally, the soldiers of destiny protect the memory of fallen leaders. In his final months in office, as the evidence of sterling deposits piled up around him, Ahern could rely on his officer corps to put their own reputations on hazard as they repeatedly denigrated those who questioned his behaviour. As the whole country laughed at the notion that Ahern won the money on a horse, the officer corps stood firm, absolute in their belief.

And none more loyal than Michael Martin.

That was then, this is now. Voters must be convinced that the old party is dead and has been reborn with virginal purity. And if that means treating Ahern and his risible regrets as a mouldy old joke, so be it.

In that flash of laughter, in a hotel function room in Mayo, we were being implicitly invited to measure this new, open, fearless, decisive leader -- a man with no time for the foolishness of the past -- against the waffling old gobshite who governed for a dozen years and left an economic wasteland behind.

It was the morning after the first TV debate of the campaign. Micheal Martin had shown the nation he was sharp and tough. Eamon Gilmore didn't seem to cop on to the debating tricks at work. For instance, "You keep changing," Micheal Martin taunted from the start, "you've chopped and changed."

This is a routine tactic -- operated to great effect by George Bush's people against John Kerry in 2004. Call the opponent a flip-flopper, throw in a couple of alleged examples (any politician is vulnerable to this) and you put them on the defensive. If they don't handle this right -- and Gilmore didn't -- you've got them on the back foot. Finding it difficult to find real room between his policies and Fianna Fail's, Gilmore increasingly leans on the crutch of rhetoric.

The other part of Micheal Martin's job is to get out among the troops, putting steel in their backbones. If the core support can be revitalised, the expected defeat mightn't be such as to leave the party smashed and without hope. If the demoralised tribal faithful can be convinced that the existence of the party is at stake, and that this strong new leader can take them back to power after a few short years in the wilderness -- who can tell what might happen?

As Micheal Martin worked on sharpening his image, the nation's impression of Enda Kenny couldn't help but get more fuzzy by the day.

On the morning of the debate, Kenny -- for some daft reason -- decided to hold an open-air press conference in front of his election HQ in Dublin. It was cold, the traffic was noisy, Kenny had to raise his voice to be heard. He fumbled an answer about the cost of making thousands of public service workers redundant.

Here's what a sharp operator would have said, when asked how much the job-cutting would cost. "We believe this will save €10bn over time, and our best estimates are that it will cost up to €1bn to achieve those savings."

Bluster, of course, but effective. Instead, he said the cost would be a billion. And he looked a little shame-faced about it. Only later did he mention the purported savings. After 36 years in the Dail, Kenny still hasn't mastered the basics.

In the short run, it doesn't matter. Out on the road that day, the Fine Gael faithful were ecstatic. There were lots of cries of "Ya boy-ya!" One roaring local, in Mullingar, announced him as "the Taoiseach of Ireland, Enda Kenny!"

In some minds, the election is a formality. To lose this one, with the country in such rag order, the Fine Gael leader would need to be an exceptionally weak performer. Trouble is, that's a pretty accurate description of Mr Kenny. He's fine on the ground, shaking hands and empathising, his troops appear to like him -- but that's it. It's not just that he's been in hiding. It's the embarrassing way he pretends he's not been in hiding.

From the start, he insisted on broadening any debate to include five participants, so as to leave him less exposed. When Martin and Gilmore agreed to the TV3 debate, Kenny came up with the far-fetched excuse that Vincent Browne suggested he commit suicide.

When his frontbenchers tried last year to dump Kenny, Browne suggested that Kenny might best remove himself from the leadership rather than be kicked out. He used the familiar metaphor of a British army officer taking a loaded revolver and a bottle of whisky into a quiet room. Accused of making light of suicide, Browne apologised, immediately and comprehensively.

When someone asked him how he'd feel if TV3 left an empty chair at the debate, Enda Kenny veered into a bizarre claim that this would be a "symbol in respect of all those who are forced to emigrate in this country".

When Browne offered to stand down from chairing the debate, Kenny claimed a prior appointment in Leitrim prevented him attending. These antics are more than juvenile. Individually, they're odd. Together, they indicate a lack of maturity that's startling in a 60-year-old.

Kenny's shameless behaviour would be a problem in any other election, but in this one he may get away with it. It's as though neither the public nor his party expect much of him. He's not Fianna Fail, and he has a pulse. That'll do to be going on with.

For both leaders, the campaign trail involves finding voters, to shake their hands. In Ballina, Micheal Martin hurries through supermarkets, hardly a shopper in sight. In a Tesco, he paces the length of the checkout area and finds about a dozen people, and his reception is no more nor less than polite. Outside a shopping centre in Athlone, a school pupil wants to discuss compulsory Irish with Enda Kenny. Kenny engages with the young man, who has clearly thought it through, but he's dragged away to get his picture taken holding a small baby.

In a side street, an old woman waves across the street to Micheal Martin and wishes him luck. In another election, she might merit a return wave. Here, he immediately crosses the road and grips her hand.

In a natural food and remedies shop, a woman turns her face away from Micheal Martin.

"Please," she says through gritted teeth, "don't ask me to talk to that man." A Fianna Failer tries to persuade her, but the woman is having none of it.

Doesn't matter much. These tours are mostly about geeing up the party faithful. Hundreds of Fianna Failers pack pubs or hotels in Mayo and Roscommon to meet Micheal Martin. He tops and tails his speech with local references, but the bulk of the speech is always the same. The "three pillars" on which he's fighting the election -- the national recovery programme, jobs and political reform. The eyes may glaze as he goes on and on, but the troops -- the majority on the wrong side of middle age -- are ready to make a fight of it.

Friday morning, Micheal Martin goes into the TV3 breakfast show, where Mark Cagney and Sinead Desmond side-step his virginal image and take him for a trot around his Fianna Fail past. Perhaps expecting a cosy chat, Martin seems a bit flustered, but rallies and makes his case.

There are fewer cosy chats than usual in these bloody awful times, and even Enda Kenny can't hide forever.

Sunday Independent