Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen has surely never been more acutely aware of the truth of the saying that a week is a long times in politics. Last week there was recorded widespread acknowledgement that his administration could be coming to grips with the recession when he was applauded for a stirring speech in which he recognized the difficulties facing most families and businesses, and at the same time delivered a rallying call that gave rise to optimism that he was the man to see the nation through the tough times. Within days, any hopes he and his Fianna Fail party had that they were clawing back the support of the electorate were severely dashed by an Irish Times poll that put Fianna Fail for the first time in living memory in third place behind Fine Gael and the Labor Party. Although Fine Gael, the main opposition party, dropped two points compared with a previous similar poll, the party still headed the tally on 32 points, 10 ahead of Fianna Fail. But the major upset for the government was a 10-point increase in support for Labor which put it in an unaccustomed second place on 24 points, two ahead of Fianna Fail. Cowen blamed difficult decisions on the economy for his party's unprecedented poor showing. The poll revealed that support for Fianna Fail has almost halved since the last election. The government's plan to make savings of €2 billion this year, through a public service pensions levy and a range of cost-cutting measures, was being targeted by backbenchers as a main source of the slump in support. The poll also showed that a substantial majority of voters - 62 percent - would now like to see a change of government. Cowen said he was aware that recent decisions would affect the government ratings, but he pledged to continue efforts to restore the economy. "We are in unprecedented times. This isn't about trying to court short-term popularity or playing politics. It's about taking the right decisions to keep our public finances in order," he said. Cowen said the opposition enjoyed the luxury of not having the responsibility of taking tough decisions. Labor leader Eamon Gilmore said, "It's very difficult to see how a government with those poll ratings can continue to have the authority to govern, and particularly to have the authority to govern in the difficult times we are in now and the difficult decisions that have to be made." Gilmore said that the 10 points surge in support for his party suggested that there was now a "third choice" of leadership for the electorate. "I have said for some time that the Labor Party was going to offer the country a third choice in leadership of government. I think the public is responding positively to that," he said. He implied that no longer was his party being viewed as a potential minority partner in a coalition. "We are not Fianna Fail. We are not Fine Gael. We are not going to be defined by reference to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. We are going to put our case separately, distinctly, as the Labor Party," Gilmore said.

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