OUTSIDE THE COCOON - I drove down to Connemara from Dublin yesterday to appear as a guest on TG4's 'Seacht Lá'.
Even when driving through the Irish countryside, you can't really escape politics.
First, there was the road. The N4 extension brings you as far as Tyrrellspass in Co Westmeath now. As you go back onto bockety roads, you can see that the work is well advanced to take the road beyond Kilbeggan and Moate and all the way into Athlone.
As sure as night follows day, a good portion of that road will be open by the time the General election takes place.
(As an aside, it looks like it will happen on May 18th, a Friday. Michael McDowell twice referred to 90 days being left at his party's conference last weekend. It is also roughly the same time as the election five years ago.)
There can be no more visible and tangible evidence than progress or achievement than the smooth tarmacadam of a wide metalled road. Expect a lot more openings over the next three months - some of them for blatant electioneering purposes. Look at the speeches of FF and the PDs - if there's money in muck, there are votes in roads.
The second unavoidable feature of the journey west was the spate of pre-election posters. Now, it's illegal to start plastering the country with smiling politicians' faces before the official campaign gets underway.
But what some have done is paid for very expensive billboard space or used other innovative ways. There's a huge poster of Mary O'Rourke, looking menacing enough to be a sentinel for the west of Wetmeath, on the approach to Kilbeggan. I'm not sure if it was a reminder to voters or a warning to Donie Cassidy to stay out!.
Further west nearer Athlone, the Fine Gael candidate Nicky McFadden's campaign van was prominently parked for the night on the N6. Maybe it was happenstance, but there was no lack of visibility.
And then in Galway East, Fine Gael's new candidate Dr John Barton has made his presence felt. The Ballinasloe-based specialist is likely to pose a threat, not only to Paddy McHugh but also to his running mate Senator Ulick Burke.
I spotted three of his billboards near the main road west, in addition to the very prominent signage of his office in the centre of Ballinasloe.
They keep on telling us that the campaign hasn't started in earnest yet. But nobody seems to be listening.
INSIDE THE COCOON - Back in Leinster House this morning, I met a wise old Fianna Fail TD from the east of the country.
"The election will be won and lost for Fianna Fail in two places," he said.
"Pray tell where?" I asked (yep, I stepped straight out of a Shakespeare tragedy)
"Cork and Dublin Central," was his reply.
He said that Cork would be vital to FF staying in Government. It's already lost one seat there as a result of boundary changes (in Cork North Central). It will have a huge fight on his hand to retain three seats in Cork South Central; to return two TDs in Cork South West (with Paddy Sheehan back). In addition, even though three FF TDs are slugging it out in Cork North West, there is a (faint) possibility that FG could sneak in and take two out of three. Cork East is the only place where FF look safe for their two (though the inimitable Ned O'Keeffe says they're not even safe there).
In a melt-down scenario, FF could lost four seats in that one county alone.
And Dublin Central? It as diffuse and fragmented a constituency as there is. The only sure thing is Bertie. The problem is will this running mates thrive in his enormous shadow or will they wither on the vine? The strategy seems to be that Bertie will try to maximise his vote and hope sufficient number two will go to his two running colleagues.
But if that's true, it's high risk. Transfers disperse and unless Mary Fitzpatrick or Cyprian Brady garner respectable volumes of first preferences, it could fail. One seat only for FF? It's almost unimaginable given the huge personal vote that Ahern gets. But in a very fragmented constituency, both Mary Lou McDonald and Patricia McKenna pose strong threats to the incumbents.