| 16.6°C Dublin

Andrew Lynch: Enda, when you run, you can't hide from tel evision debates

Micheal Martin fancies a threesome. Don't worry, the new Fianna Fail leader isn't about to destroy his squeaky-clean image just yet.

Instead, he's asked Enda Kenny to meet himself and Eamon Gilmore in a series of television debates -- and by running away from the challenge, the FG boss has reawakened all the old doubts about whether he has what it takes to be Taoiseach.

The election campaign hasn't officially started yet, but Kenny is trying to act as if he's won already. He and his finance spokesman Michael Noonan are in Brussels today, on a mission to negotiate a better bailout deal from the EC president Jose Manuel Barroso.

Back home, even his future coalition partners in Labour are calling him a chicken -- which raises the obvious question of how he expects to handle our new masters in Europe when he's apparently scared of going on TV with Martin and Gilmore?

For several months now it has been obvious that FG have a deliberate strategy of protecting their leader from media interviews, hardly surprising given that so many of them have blown up in Enda's face.

His handlers have just had to accept that no matter how engaging the Mayo man is in private, he turns into pure wood every time the camera is turned on him. These days he limits his appearances to quick soundbites on the move, while better economic brains such as Noonan and Richard Bruton are sent out to do the heavy lifting on radio and television.

This routine has worked well up to now, but it won't be good enough in the white heat of an election campaign -- because voters are looking for a Taoiseach who can talk about his policies without getting tripped up on the detail.

Kenny's standard answer to this is that he's the captain of a team and doesn't want to hog the limelight. That's all very well, but the electorate hasn't forgotten that almost half of his team tried to dump him.

His personal approval ratings remain desperately low -- and when the former rebel Simon Coveney was asked recently how his leader has improved since the leadership challenge, he could not come up with a single example.

Enda's insistence that he wants a five-way debate instead in order to be fair to the smaller parties is unlikely to fool anyone. A crowded stage would obviously mean less time for everyone, making it easier for him to just roll off prepared answers and tougher for Martin or anyone else to get at him. It suggests that the FG leader is still haunted by his loss to Bertie Ahern in 2007, where he started strongly but visibly wilted the longer the show went on.

Martin's challenge may be a gimmick, but it's a clever one that has done a highly effective job of smoking Enda out. The new FF chief knows that Eamon Gilmore would also jump at the chance of a three-way debate, since that makes the Labour leader look much more like a potential Taoiseach.

Vincent Browne's TV3 show is now threatening to organise the event with an empty chair if Kenny doesn't show up, an image that should make every FG TD squirm.

If Enda really wants to be Taoiseach, he should have more faith in himself. Expectations for his debate performances are now so low that he only has to avoid turning into a gibbering wreck to retain pole position.

The only person who can stop Enda Kenny from becoming the next Taoiseach is Enda himself. Right now, he's doing a very good job of exactly that.