Varadkar plans to win rural votes and avoid tag of 'cappuccino candidate'
A battle for rural Ireland could decide the outcome of the Fine Gael leadership race as Leo Varadkar attempts to avoid becoming the 'cappuccino candidate'.
The Social Protection Minister is to focus a major part of his effort outside the capital - effectively taking the contest to Simon Coveney's heartland.
As a former minister for agriculture, Mr Coveney would be expected to win big in rural areas, but sources close to his rival say he has learned from Richard Bruton's botched heave against Enda Kenny in 2010.
It was famously portrayed as 'the cappuccino generation versus those who eat their dinner in the middle of the day'.
Sources in the Varadkar camp told the Irish Independent there would be no urban-rural divide this time because the minister had spent months on the "chicken and chips circuit" meeting Fine Gael members, TDs and councillors.
The Dublin West TD has visited at least seven counties in the past year in his official capacity, including Longford, Galway, Cork, Offaly and Meath.
He also attended the Ploughing Championships in September for the first time.
"Leo is as popular outside Dublin as he is inside it," said one minister who would be seen as a Kenny supporter.
Mr Varadkar also holds Wednesday evening clinics where he meets with TDs, senators and delegations that travel up from the country.
He is described as "maniacal" when it comes to follow-up phone calls and letters. "His office is renowned for getting back to you," a source said.
However, supporters of Mr Coveney argue that his job "has brought him around a lot as well - except he wasn't lobbying".
"The numbers are fairly well divided. More than one-third of TDs are completely unaligned. That's where they have to target," the source said.
They noted that while Mr Varadkar had "made himself known" in rural constituencies, the Housing Minister will pick up some votes from Dublin TDs.
It is understood the Cork South Central minister is particularly hopeful of picking up votes from female representatives in the capital.
Party strategists believe that Dublin and Munster will be key battlegrounds for Fine Gael at the next election if it is to avoid a Fianna Fáil drubbing.
Fine Gael has just 11 Dublin-based TDs in the Dáil and 10 in all of Munster.
A source said: "There's no doubt people will be asking: What can Simon bring to Dublin and what can Leo bring to Munster?"
A number of TDs told the Irish Independent that if it came down to that basic choice, Mr Varadkar would have more "star power" or "X factor" to offer.
Mr Varadkar is said to already have the backing of Fine Gael TDs in Wexford, Carlow/Kilkenny, Longford/Westmeath, Meath and Waterford, as well as "several" in the west.
Sources said Mr Coveney can't even expect the support of all the TDs in his home county.
Cork South West TD Jim Daly is viewed as a supporter of Mr Varadkar, with the Social Protection Minister travelling to the far-flung constituency to open his party colleague's office in recent months.
"At a time when Simon was agriculture minister we managed to lose 11 seats in Munster. That's a lot of votes that should be going his way wiped out," one TD said.
However, several noted that despite Mr Varadkar's efforts, there was no question that Mr Coveney had a better understanding of rural affairs.
This is an area where Fine Gael struggled significantly during last year's election.
"His background is in agriculture and he knows more about that than anybody else who is considering running for the leadership," said a minister.
The fact Mr Coveney served as a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007 is also likely to feature very heavily on his CV during the campaign.
"People don't fully know Simon yet," said a colleague, adding: "A longer campaign will help people see his credentials and achievements."
Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar is set to tell the Cabinet today that the Social Insurance Fund finished 2016 with a first surplus since the economic crash in 2007.
It is understood the fund, which is used to finance social welfare benefits, has a surplus of around €460m.
However, a memo prepared by the minister will note that it faces challenges in the coming years due to the growing and ageing population.
Mr Varadkar is to inform the Cabinet of plans for a 50-year actuarial review to look at future trends for the fund in light of the ageing population.
This review will also consider various policies, economic and demographic changes.
The memo notes a public consultation will be launched this year to determine what sort of additional benefits people might be interested in receiving in return for paying PRSI.