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Race is uneven, but it's not time for white flags

LAST night, the TV news showed a reporter, gloved microphone in hand, asking presidential candidate Gay Mitchell a question.

Not about his qualifications for going to Aras an Uachtarain. Not about his past experiences or future plans.

Gay Mitchell would have expected, maybe even welcomed, any of those questions. Instead, the question was about money.

Was the candidate now merely hoping not to lose his deposit.

The response was immediate. "Oh, for heavens sake," Mitchell retorted, brushing past Justin McCarthy, the man who'd asked the question on behalf of TodayFM.


The cameras caught a shot of the radio man's expression: taken aback. It's fair to assume he was not half as taken aback as Gay Mitchell was.

Even though I didn't talk to Mitchell after the incident, from working with him over the past few weeks, I know where he's coming from on this. And probably where a couple of the down-the-ranks candidates are at, right now.

They know the opinion polls have reduced the presidential election to a two horse race, the two horses being Michael D. Higgins and Sean Gallagher.

But they also know that, just a few weeks ago, it was a different two horse race, the horses back then being David Norris and Michael D. And they say to themselves that it's always possible, even if it doesn't seem probable, that a flop could still happen, dumping either Michael D. or Sean G. to the back of the field.

One of the hopes that the runners at the back of the field would share is that something would emerge about one of the two that would disgrace and disqualify them. Daft hope? Not really, given what has happened thus far in this particular race.

The last time we had a presidential election, it turned out to be surprisingly vicious, with a Government minister at the time having to be hauled off an RTE regional reporter with whom he clearly wanted to come to blows.

This time around, it's been much worse. So much worse that we have to be grateful that the protests against Wall Street and the continuing bank crisis within the EU are distracting international media from paying too much attention to what has become a frankly squalid contest for the highest office in little Ireland.

The stuff about David Norris was bad enough. The cracks at Mary Davis for being an air-brushed Quango Queen didn't improve things.

But what has been said about the family of wee Dana Rosemary Scallon has been beyond anything an evil-minded fiction writer could imagine.

It isn't just that the Dana data has been rivetting and shocking. It is that the revelations have absorbed so much print and TV/radio/web coverage that the entire campaign has been skewed, completely screwing up the capacity of other candidates to set out their wares and justify their claims.

This is obvious even from a glance at the RTE Big Debate, in the middle of which Miriam O'Callaghan asked a question that put murder and Martin McGuinness in the one sentence. Even his extraordinary reaction to that question paled in comparison to the coverage of Dana's situation -- and it swept coverage of several other candidates into the sidelines.

Of course it's not fair to them. But neither life nor politics are fair. The indications are that voters are moving beyond all the mucky stuff to a man they hardly knew before the debates, who seems ordinary.


So, it's all over, bar the pouting? Not so. First of all, there's the forced error factor that comes into play when people over-react to an extraordinary poll. That forced error factor brought Michael D. out into the open, offering to do a one-to-one debate with Sean Gallagher. You could see the rationale: old parliamentarian with proven intellectual depth shows up the shallow thinking of TV celeb/closet Fianna Failer.

Sean Gallagher quickly capitalised by turning down the invite.

The runners in the bunch will hope for more of the same - and less of the scandal coverage. It may not be all to play for but it's certainly not time for white flags.