It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The Fine Gael brains trust had planned an election campaign where they would play the role of Fianna Fáil in 2002.

Facing a divided opposition, they would offer the only credible choice for government, and reaping the credit for economic progress, they would sweep back into office, writes Prime Time Presenter David McCullagh.

Instead, they are playing the part of Fianna Fáil in 2007.

Becalmed mid campaign, panic beginning to take hold as they realise they could actually lose an election they were expected to win, campaign HQ referred to as “Meltdown Manor”.

So, how did they end up here, and can they fix it?

The answer to the second question is easier: yes, it can be fixed – after all, Fianna Fáil did so in 2007. Which is not to say it will be fixed – that depends on finding the right answer to the first question.

So how did they get here? Fine Gael had two strong cards coming into this election.

First, they were the most trusted party on the economy, and had a strong message to sell – while many people have yet to feel it, the recovery is clearly under way, and people likely to vote Fine Gael have done better than others.

Secondly, they were so far ahead of the other parties that it was difficult to envisage any government that didn’t include them – I wrote about this some weeks ago under the heading “Enda the Inevitable?”, a suggestion which now looks more than a little dodgy!

So what has happened in the past few weeks? Why are polls showing Fine Gael support dropping rather than rising?

Partly because they mangled their economic message. The whole “fiscal space” concept seemed to annoy people, and in any case their figures turned out to be – to put it at is kindest – confused.

Also, the party that had been talking for years about fiscal prudence made abolition of the USC the cornerstone of its election campaign.

Many people saw that as a massive tax cut for the rich, reducing the amount of cash available for services. Fine Gael argue that that is not true, but have failed to get that message across.

And the declining poll ratings have created an opportunity for the opposition parties.

While Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil haven’t yet seen significant benefit from Fine Gael’s troubles, they at least have an opportunity now to do so.

Claims that either party could lead a new government seemed far-fetched last month; now they are no more far-fetched than the idea of the current coalition being returned.

And yet, Fine Gael retain advantages: polls show they are still the most trusted party on the economy; and they are still, by quite a margin, the largest party.

Given those advantages, this is still Fine Gael’s election to lose. But bear in mind - these are the people who managed to lose a referendum to abolish the Seanad, possibly the least useful political institution on the planet.

By Prime Time's David McCullagh