It's early days in the campaign, but Gay Mitchell is not polling well. As the field solidified, the FG vote deserted Mitchell. It did so for a number of reasons: a botched negative attack on Martin McGuinness, perceived initially as the main threat, particularly in winning old Fianna Fail votes; the absence of Fianna Fáil; the strength and diversity of the other candidates; and also the sheer number of other candidates, and the unlikelihood of a government candidate attracting significant transfers.
The negative campaign was a disaster. Mitchell's intemperate appearance with Eamon Dunphy and McGuinness, coupled with the Late Late Show (and an appalling attempt to do a Lloyd Bentsen on McGuinness, who is certainly no Dan Quayle!) did not serve him well. Countless studies show that negative campaigns work. One study makes the point that "[b]ecause negative political advertising that identifies the sponsor and the target hurts both candidates, when a candidate uses such advertising, it would be better not to identify the sponsor." Having the sponsor actually execute the campaign, and deliver the messages personally is completely counter productive. The attacks didn't help McGuinness, but they certainly hurt Mitchell.
Another problem for Mitchell has been the absence of Fianna Fáil. Whatever one says about Seán Gallagher's Fianna Fail credentials, there is simply no imperative to "get those b£$%ards out!" as there was back in January. The persistence of high FG polling since the general election dilutes this notion somewhat, but that FG was a significant, feasible alternative to Fianna Fáil in the election in February is simply not an issue in this campaign.
The opposing candidate quality is also very high. Gallagher, presenting an independent, non-negative, blue sky kind of view is very slick and effective. His response to Fianna Fáil associations that "I never hid that, I encourage political participation, I am an independent" is effective also. McGuinness has great recognition, a grandfatherly way about him, and a seriousness that is difficult to match - you get the sense that people would listen to him when he says something (no jokes please!). No-one can truly say they don't like Michael D, and even Dana has a niche that, in her absence, Mitchell could have expected support from. David Norris one feels is damaged now, and Joycean foppishness is beginning to look like a playful gimmick, in the midst of very serious discussions by the other candidates. Mary Davis is gathering a significant woman's vote. All of that conspires against McGuinness, and the absence of a Labour candidate to be eliminated before him means that transfers will be all over the place.
If Mitchell loses, Fine Gael will find themselves under pressure. If they lose to McGuinness or Gallagher, it will be a boost for Sinn Fein who are already flying high, or perhaps the beginning of a resurgence for Fianna Fáil. If they lose to Higgins, Gilmore may become more active within the coalition, agitating for more Labour orientation to policy given their now enhanced mandate. Kenny will come under pressure for his dithering over Cox, and with county council elections the next hurdle, grassroots whispering about the Taoiseach may begin anew.
Fine Gael now need to find their new vision. For good or ill, it was defined by Fianna Fáil in the election in February. They need to be seen to make significant speeches on social policy, foreign policy, and other non-economic subjects. They need to broaden their definition of themselves as more than merely a party of business, an economic hope. They need to become more representative of Irish aspiration, not merely administration. Otherwise, they will fade into the dross and cynicism that has so characterised the Irish political class for a number of decades now, illuminated only too briefly by the Green Party.
It is a tremendous opportunity for Fine Gael to tighten their grip on power in this country for a generation. I doubt they'll take it.