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Medb Ruane: A hole where a leader should be -- and no obvious man to fill it

Politicians say they like feedback. So here's internet prankster 'Bobby Channel's' outburst at Enda Kenny in Leitrim on Tuesday night.

"You sidestepped two watery buffoons, two men who could not lead this country if they gave them a minimum wage and instead you came down here," 'Bobby' said. "I'm sorry Enda, it's clear that you've sidestepped the issue. You're afraid to go on TV and you're afraid to debate with two muppet leaders."

Okay -- it was a set-up. But it made as much sense as a lot of other stuff we've heard during the election.

The scene was a hall where Kenny was dallying while Vincent Browne mediated the first TV debate between Micheál Martin and Eamon Gilmore. I don't agree that Gilmore and Martin -- or, indeed, Kenny himself -- are watery buffoons, but I see where 'Bobby' is coming from. He's just identified the Problem With No Name.

The Problem With No Name is this. While the country's future is bigger and much more important than personality politics (the scoundrels' last resort), there's a hole where a leader should be and there's no obvious man to fill it.

The candidates are overcoached and overcautious. It's a serious, cautious time but they're not being their own men. Add to this the old-fashioned format of Irish leaders' debates -- no audience interaction, no moderators from outside the core TV camp -- and the odds of seeing real leadership qualities there diminish.

The reality is that Ireland, like other small economies, operates in a predatory, fast-changing financial landscape where the greatest skill needed is the ability to manoeuvre, starting now.

The next greatest skill is the capacity to face down vested interests, whether they're running-dog, lickspitting capitalists or little red book-waving comrades. Are the main candidates too stuck in their version of what went wrong to be able to dodge and deal where it's needed?

Micheál Martin is playing a newbie role as though the past has no future. Martin is a highly-strung political instrument whose excitability makes him an entertaining TV performer, provided he stays away from his back catalogue. His glamorous, clever ways worked only so well under Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, for whom he was something of a talented but pesky colleague better suited to the graces of Iveagh House than the ruaille buaille of Finance.

In Health, he showed a notable lack of thinking through when he abolished the health boards by basically buying everyone off without laying anyone off, and thus contributing to the mess that became the HSE. As for the smoking ban? It gave the illusion of regulating wrongdoers while the real wrongdoers were somewhere else.

Martin is promoting Brian Cowen's Plan, which is already set to be out of date because of shifts in the EU, as different attitudes to bondholders and global finance become more pronounced. His version of what went wrong is almost identical to Cowen's. Shaggy's old song 'It wasn't me' refers.

Eamon Gilmore didn't land a killer punch on Martin last Tuesday, having decided (or been advised) to play the ball, not the man, even on the day that Anglo Irish said it needs more money.

Yes, Martin spent thousands of days in Government but calling him 'Minister' didn't pack enough strength and could sound deferential. The less pressure put on Martin about the fiscal and banking fiascos, the more distance Martin puts between himself and them, which is presumably what he wants.

Gilmore manoeuvered stealthily in the political backrooms of Democratic Left and the Labour Party, ousting Pat Rabbitte as leader while retaining his loyalty. On Tuesday, he began as a virtual Agony Uncle, reminding people of their fears, worries, lack of opportunities and so forth to a point where, even though it's all true, he risked being a Cassandra rather than a Moses.

His priestly demeanour stood him well in Dáil debates. Gilmore is like a barman who tactfully removes the next pint from the drunken man, without giving offence. His popularity in various polls testifies not to any gregariousness but to a sense of him as solid and authoritative, if not overly exciting.

His dilemma, as he seems too aware, is to not scare investors and speculators with a big socialist message, while taking care not to alienate his trade union support.

What about Enda? Not glamorous, not terribly entertaining and not on TV3, but with his party heading the polls after the time he spent building FG from bottom to top.

He took the leadership after Michael Noonan resigned in 2002, moving very quickly despite having almost lost his seat. He revealed an unexpected side when he won the challenge to his leadership in 2010, dealing forcefully for such an apparently meek man.

FG's Ross O'Carroll-Kelly wing would probably like Kenny to turn into a gladiator, when he prefers to pull the strings. If he is a Moses, then he's a modest one, preferring the bulrushes to the bullring. Years in the Opposition desert must help him appreciate power, having been without it for so long.

The spin that he'd be a low-profile Chairman-type Taoiseach is having some effect, but its success depends on who takes the key ministries and who can talk up national morale.

So far, it's not West Wing stuff, nor Primary Colours, unless life is unexpectedly vivid behind the scenes. So far, they're putting politics before passion -- and playing a disappointingly old-fashioned game.

Indo Review