The flux of this election campaign has been unprecedented. What the opinion polls tell us – and not with any great accuracy – is not to write anyone off. Not Fianna Fail when they’re down at 34%. Not Fine Gael or Labour when they’ve ebbed from a high tide of 31% and 13% to a less impressive 28% and 10%. Not the Greens, who dipped. Not Sinn Fein despite Gerry Adams loose grasp of Southern economics. Not even the PDs. Especially not the PDs. Remember last time.
With just 24 hours of a 15-day election campaign to go, the country is still on an uncertain course. Five years ago, the race was over and the only imponderable was if Fianna Fail could pull off an overall majority for the first time since 1977. Now, nobody can call it with any certainty. To be sure, the momentum has trended towards FF for the past week – but the main opposition parties are adamant that the last poll wasn’t truly reflective of the mood out there.
The thematic battlegrounds of the election wasn’t as complicated and layered as we thought. For the first fortnight, it was dominated by the questions surrounding Bertie Ahern’s finances. That went to his credibility. Following his statement, Brian Cowen pumped up the volume with an attack on Fine Gael’s contract ‘con job’ last Monday week. But it didn’t sustain. FF’s was running the same campaign as it had in 2002 – but everything they turned their hands to seemed to spontaneously combust before their eyes.
In contrast, both Fine Gael and Labour were running clever campaigns. FG concentrated on Enda Kenny whistlestopping his way through the country. Labour relied on clever targeted messages, using Pat Rabbitte’s force of character to drive the message home in a punchy and quip-laden manner.
The slow turn started for Ahern in Westminster with a superb speech and the build-up to the TV debate on Thursday. What distinguished the 2007 showdown from the 2002 version was that it happened much earlier – with a full week to go – and the contest was much more finely-poised.
It was to prove to be a critical encounter. If the media view was that Ahern shaded it, it seems the public didn’t share it, plumping much more for the FF leader. Be they true or not, he had succeeded in getting some of his assertions outs there – on the veracity of FG’s claims on 2,000 extra cops; his claim that their tax policies favoured the top 3% of earners; and his jibes about their plans for 2,300 more beds. He planted a seed of doubt that went to the question of Kenny’s competence and wherewithal.
And FF followed up by using the basketball ploy of a full-court press, hammering home the points. It was only when the startling results of the last opinion poll appeared on Monday that the opposition parties came out fighting, screaming that the FF claims on tax were “lies”. It descended into a slanging match between Cowen and Rabbitte on Questions and Answers, that was so slapstick and vaudeville it could have come straight from a bout of the ‘World Wresting Federation’.
Yesterday was the last real day of engagement before today’s broadcast moratorium. The parties had their own message to sell. But the day was dominated by an amazing FF gaffe. After pounding away at the opposition for three days, FF was knocked out by a self-inflicted haymaker yesterday.
The carefully co-ordinated message for the press confererence were washed away in the rapids. And then the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern went onto RTE’s Six-One News and found a very different Bryan Dobson than the one he had encountered last autumn.
Dobson gave him a grilling. He back-footed Ahern on a 10 year promise to provide facilities for cystic fibrosis sufferers. It was in the famous €2.4 billion envelope for capital health projects, he said. But not specified. But he had written them a letter in his own hand, he pleaded. Not good enough.
Similarly, he was going backwards on that FF ad that claimed the only 3% of tax payers would benefit from FG and Labour tax cuts. That was semantics and shifting sands at its worst. Dobson forced him to admit that 100% of tax payers would benefit from the Mullingar Accord’s two per cent cut in the standard rate. Case closed.
Fianna Fail had a brilliant Monday. The alternative had a strong day yesterday. Has any of this swayed voters. We will find out tomorrow.
Part of the above appeared in this morning's Irish Examiner.