The red rosettes are being beaten black and blue

TO USE the lingo of a certain Scandinavian football commentator, he took one hell of a beating.

Jack McConnell will surely shudder every time he returns to Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel after the memory of last Thursday evening. The scene was the third hustings between the four party leaders, this time in front of a hall full of small businessmen and women who had been invited to ask the leaders about their plans to kick-start the economy. The pattern at public debates such as this is now pretty standard: whoever is wearing the red rosette gets a kicking.

But the venom reserved for McConnell was particularly acute. Worse, he had no answer at all for Alex Salmond, whose own typically well-delivered responses brought him six rounds of applause compared to McConnell's none. By the end of the evening, McConnell was dragging his face round his ankles. As soon as the debate was over, he dashed off. The phrase 'seal-clubbing' came to mind.

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If we know one thing about McConnell from his time in office, it is that he is resilient. On Friday, welcoming Tony Blair to Glasgow for the Prime Minister's latest visit, he was once again claiming that there was "all to play for" and that the party's relentless attacks on the SNP's economic plans were soon, just you watch, about to have an effect. Now a contrast is being made in the Labour camp between the 'ground war' in this campaign and the 'air war'. In the air war, so the theory goes, we in the media are all giving far too much attention to 'process', and in particular the slick campaign of the SNP. We are therefore guilty of ignoring what's going on on the ground, where people are said to be getting increasingly nervous about the potential cost of the Nationalists' policies, and in particular their policy of a local income tax.

Perhaps there is some merit in this. But the truth is that no one - neither the media nor the parties - can be entirely sure about what is going on in your living-room as a result of this campaign. It's a good bet that most of it is still background din. What we do know, because we have seen it time and time again - with McConnell's Thursday massacre just the latest example - is that there is a popular mood to give Labour a thumping.

That, according to a number of Labour candidates whom I have spoken to, is the main message that they are getting back from angry voters.

If anything, last week showed how incapable Labour seems to be at overcoming this. It is said that the party is losing votes because of the war in Iraq and Tony Blair's unpopularity. On Tuesday, launching his campaign with not a Westminster figure in sight, Jack McConnell had the perfect opportunity to show that the election wasn't about that, and to lay out his own vision. But he fluffed it. Passionate words on education were lost amid back-of-a-fag-packet plans on council tax. Nothing summed up McConnell's own image problems more than his attempt to put the far-reaching nature of his education policy into context. To do so, he described it as "even more radical than the smoking ban".

In McConnell's terms, it seems this is the definition of what constitutes radicalism: something that outshines stopping people having a fag in the pub. As he once again showed on Friday, first with a rousing speech on the Union and then as a brilliant campaigner, Tony Blair does have the vision and imagination required to win this campaign, but so tarnished is his image that he now has to explicitly beg people to resist the temptation of giving him "a kicking".

McConnell can't extricate himself from this. The biggest jeer (of many) he received on Thursday evening was when he tried to assert that Gordon Brown's infamous 1997 pensions fund raid was "not an issue in this election campaign". As if.

Last week, with the SNP launching its manifesto, McConnell had what will probably be his best chance in the campaign to knock Salmond off course. In truth, he didn't seem able to land a glove.

After the small businesses event on Thursday, I could not find one person who did not think the SNP leader had comfortably won the event. And after last week, SNP strategists now believe there is nothing Labour can do that will really hurt them.

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Except maybe two things. One wise head told me that the only way a crisis would occur was if Salmond somehow lost his head (which he shows absolutely no sign of doing), or if Tony Blair declared before May 3 that he was quitting. And we all know that isn't going to happen. Don't we?