Unlike his first hustings, Leo didn’t read straight from his script, addressing the audience directly and lobbing in a few sly jabs at Simon, writes Lisa Hand

Maybe it’s just after spending a year essentially cooling their heels and trying not to start any digging-matches with the lads from Fianna Fáil who are mysteriously in charge of the government’s political lifeline, but the Fine Gael TDs and senators are a right herd of giddy-goats at the prospect of getting a brand new party leader.

Outside the Carlow DIT, the venue for the second of the four debates, two members of the Oireachtas hustled over to a loitering journalist. “I think Leo shaded the debate tonight,” claimed one. “Especially in the second half,” concurred his colleague.

The trouble was that these opinions were proffered about 30 minutes before the debate actually took place. Then senator Jerry Buttimer strolled over. These weekend-long hustings have played havoc with his carefully-planned wardrobe.

“I ran out of shirts and had to nip into Joe Carey’s room and borrow a shirt,” he confessed cheerfully, giving rise to the suspicion that the Clare TD was blissfully unaware of the raid.

Though they all missed the opportunity to cheerlead for their chosen candidate with one particular member of the media who had travelled to Carlow — a journalist from India Today, a weekly publication with a readership of a staggering 15m which is taking a close interest in Leo Varadkar’s bid for the top Irish political job — his father Ashok was born in Mumbai.

As 8pm approached, the crowd of several hundred supporters took their seats in a large auditorium which was mercifully cooler than the hothouse of the previous evening in Dublin. There were empty seats down the back, but the support was evenly matched and as noisy as the Red Cow crew. Though local radio station KCLR had a theory on the gaps in the crowd. “Maybe silage season is to blame for all the empty seats,” tweeted the station.

The political temperature was also less fevered — after all, Leo and Simon have four intense nights to endure, and the high-octane opening would be tough to sustain without one of them keeling over.

Simon Coveney spoke first, and was markedly more low-key than his kick-the-doors-in peroration of the first hustings.

Once again, he put his case for looking at where Fine Gael is going as an inclusive party. “Where is Fine Gael’s moral compass pointing today,” he asked. “It is right to target sections of society in order to get a vote dividend from them?”

He also criticised the slogan ‘Keep the Recovery going’ under which his party campaigned in the general election last year. “How many doors did you knock on to be told, ‘we’re not feeling it in our house and what about a bit of compassion over what we’re going through?’”

In contrast to his reserved speech in Dublin, Leo began with a dig at his opponent. “When you arrived a little bit late tonight, I was afraid you were pulling out again,” he sniped, earning himself a delighted cheer from his supporters.

Also unlike his first hustings, Leo didn’t read straight from his script, addressing the audience directly and lobbing in a few sly jabs at Simon. Referencing the question of a moral compass, he declared that broad compasses about social equality “are empty rhetoric that does not constitute leadership”.

Leo did his best to dispel the notion that he was all about the capital, citing his Dungarvan-born mother. “I never sought to be a minister for Dublin any more than Simon thought to be a min for Cork,” he pointed out in an attempt to level the playing-pitch when taking on a former agriculture minister in front of a largely rural audience.

It was a more assured performance from the social protection minister, although Simon did slide in a counter-dig at the start of the question session. “Going back to your fear that I had dropped out of the race, all I can say is, you wish,” he responded to laughter.

Understandably, issues relating to rural Ireland rose in the question session.

Simon was more relaxed in his comfort zone, discussing the big subject of the abolition of sugar quotas across the EU which is happening in September, whereas Leo stuck mainly to generalities, talking about his grandfather being a tillage farmer nearby. But, again a nod to his exhaustive preparations, he brought up some local issues to general approval from the floor, perhaps having been briefed by his pal, Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan.

But there was little showbiz in Carlow. Then again this was a serious audience who would be unimpressed by too much shape-throwing by either candidate. They want the silage to stay in the fields, and not appear on the campaign podium.

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