FINE Gael could be on course to win an extra 30 Dail seats after copper-fastening its position as the most popular party in the country in a new opinion poll.
The dismal Fianna Fail figure means the party is facing the loss of over 50 seats in the General Election -- widely expected to take place in late March -- if the results are repeated on polling day.
The first poll of the year, carried out by Red C for bookmaker Paddy Power, shows Fine Gael at 35pc, up one from a comparable poll carried out in December, and its highest rating since last March.
Pollsters Red C also say there are a large number of voters who claim they are likely to vote for Fine Gael but have not yet fully committed to doing so.
If those voters commit to Fine Gael, it could push the party toward 40pc -- which would translate into around 80 Dail seats -- a jump of almost 30 from the current 51, and just shy of an overall majority of 83.
But there are also a large number who may vote for Labour, down three to 21pc, but have yet to make their minds up. The major battle during the election campaign will be between Fine Gael and Labour to secure the support of these uncommitted voters.
The latest poll was carried out after a relatively quiet political period, marked by the continuing exodus of senior Fianna Fail TDs deciding not to contest the election, such as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former minister Michael Woods, Defence Minister Tony Killeen and junior minister Michael Finneran.
It continues the trend of previous polls which showed Fine Gael surging in the wake of strong performances by finance spokesman Michael Noonan and the party's economic team on the Budget and the IMF-EU bailout.
But other parties say Fine Gael is adopting a deliberate strategy of limiting Enda Kenny's media appearances in a bid to hide his weaknesses, particularly when it comes to debating economic issues.
Mr Noonan recently dismissed those claims as "propaganda" from Labour and Fianna Fail, but polls have consistently shown that Mr Kenny is not popular with voters, with Labour leader Eamon Gilmore the preferred choice for Taoiseach. However, the gap is closing slightly. Mr Gilmore is favoured by 37pc, down from 45pc, while Mr Kenny is up three to 27pc.
Labour will be disappointed its support is continuing to drop after peaking in the late 20s and early 30s in the middle of last year. After briefly polling as the most popular party, Labour has now fallen back substantially as Fine Gael's approach to reducing the deficit is seen as more realistic.
Labour will be particularly concerned that it has lost ground in Dublin, where it is now neck and neck with Fine Gael, after enjoying a commanding lead in the capital. Fine Gael is strongest across other regions and is by far the most popular party among younger voters.
Fianna Fail is tied with Sinn Fein on 14pc -- down three from the last poll in late December -- and is just 1pc above its lowest ever poll figure, recorded early last month. The party has effectively collapsed in Dublin, with only 10pc support -- one point behind Sinn Fein.
Independents are up two to 12pc and the Green Party has seen its support double. After months of languishing within the 3pc margin of error, it has jumped from 2pc to 4pc.
Brian Lenihan is still the favourite as Finance Minister, even though this poll is the first to be carried out since Mr Lenihan effectively nationalised AIB before Christmas. FG's Richard Bruton and Michael Noonan are next, followed by Labour's Joan Burton and Pat Rabbitte.