JIM Mitchell is the voters' favourite to succeed John Bruton as Fine Gael leader, according to a Sunday Independent/IMS opinion poll.
But Michael Noonan has more support than his rivals among Fine Gael voters, the poll has found.
Enda Kenny is also presenting a strong challenge among Fine Gael supporters, although his public support is some way behind the two front runners.
Mr Kenny did not declare for the leadership until Thursday, almost a week after his rivals were up and running. The contest will be decided on Friday.
The poll, conducted on Thursday before Cork North Central TD Bernard Allen entered the race, showed Jim Mitchell with 30 per cent support among voters; Michael Noonan with 25 per cent; Enda Kenny with 17 per cent, while 11 per cent favoured none of these three and 17 per cent did not know or had no opinion.
However, the position is dramatically reversed among Fine Gael supporters. In this category Mr Noonan has 32 per cent support, Mr Mitchell has 27 per cent and Mr Kenny has a substantial 25 per cent.
Again, 11 per cent of Fine Gael voters favoured none of these three while 5 per cent did not know or had no opinion. This finding may prompt a fifth candidate to enter the race, although yesterday Fine Gael chief whip Charlie Flanagan ruled himself out and backed Mr Noonan for the leadership.
But in terms of the formation of an alternative government, the poll presents another significant finding. It is that Mr Mitchell is the clear favourite among Labour voters.
In this category, Mr Mitchell has 40 per cent support, Mr Noonan has 27 per cent and Mr Kenny has just 6 per cent. Of Labour supporters, 11 per cent favoured none of these three while 15 per cent did not know or had no opinion.
Among Fianna Fáil voters, Mr Mitchell is also the favourite with 32 per cent support, while Mr Noonan has 27 per cent and Mr Kenny has 19 per cent. In this category, 10 per cent favoured none of these three and 12 per cent did not know or had no opinion.
In ruling himself out of the race yesterday, Mr Flanagan said: "It is important that the party focus on who will provide the most effective leadership for Fine Gael with a general election fast approaching. The party will need a leader with sound judgement, sharp political skills and excellent organisational capacity. I believe Michael Noonan is the best choice to lead our party at this critical time in the party's history. I will be voting for Michael Noonan.
"Michael Noonan as leader with Jim Mitchell as his deputy have the experience, the policies and the energy required to revitalise Fine Gael and lead the party on to victory."
The poll found that 46 per cent of voters agreed with the decision of the Fine Gael parliamentary party to vote 'no confidence' in the leadership of Mr Bruton, with 36 per cent disagreeing.
Fine Gael supporters are clearly divided on the decision to remove Mr Bruton with 47 per cent agreeing and 46 per cent disagreeing.
Interestingly, satisfaction with Mr Bruton increased by four percentage points, to 44 per cent, after the no confidence vote, while 36 per cent were dissatisfied with him. During his leadership, the poll found 40 per cent satisfaction and 40 per cent dissatisfaction with Mr Bruton.
The poll also found that support for Fine Gael has increased while support for Fianna Fáil and Labour has slipped since the last IMS poll was conducted in November last year.
The state of the parties, excluding the 'Don't Knows', is: Fianna Fáil 46 per cent, down 2 percentage points; Fine Gael 25 per cent, up 2 points; Labour 11 per cent, down 1 point; Progressive Democrats 4 per cent, up 1 point; Greens 4 per cent, down 1 point; others unchanged at 10 per cent. Of the 'others', Sinn Féin is at 4 per cent, down 2 points.
Satisfaction with the Government, at 60 per cent, has increased by 6 points since last November, while 34 per cent are dissatisfied, down 6 points, and an unchanged 6 per cent do not know.
Satisfaction with both Government leaders has increased with the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern at 68 per cent, up 2 points, and the Tanaiste, Ms Harney, at 59 per cent, up 3 points. Satisfaction with the Labour leader, Mr Quinn, at 53 per cent, is up 2 points.
A large majority of voters are opposed to a general election now; 59 per cent, up 2 points, want the present Government to continue; 32 per cent, down 3 points, want an election now and 9 per cent, up 1 point, do not know or have no opinion.
A majority of Labour supporters, at 52 per cent and 42 per cent of Fine Gael voters want the present Government to continue
An analysis of the poll reveals that Mr Noonan is a clear favourite among 18- to 24-year-olds while Mr Mitchell is even more clearly the favourite among voters aged from 25 to 64. Mr Noonan re-emerges as the favourite among voters aged over 65.
A regional breakdown predictably found Mr Mitchell the favourite in Dublin while he and Mr Noonan are running neck and neck in the rest of Leinster, with Mr Noonan 1 point ahead in this area.
Also predictably, Mr Noonan is the favourite in Munster, 5 points ahead of Mr Mitchell.
Not surprisingly, Mr Kenny is favourite in Connaught/Ulster, 5 points ahead of Mr Mitchell. Mr Noonan lags 8 points behind in this region.
Interestingly, Mr Mitchell is the favourite in both urban and rural areas. A breakdown shows he has 32 per cent support in urban areas and 27 per cent in rural areas while Mr Noonan has 24 per cent urban support and 26 per cent rural support. Mr Kenny has 13 per cent urban support and 22 per cent rural support.
Meanwhile, a significant number of TDs have yet to make up their minds as to who they will support in the Fine Gael leadership election on Friday.
Limerick TD and bookies' favourite Michael Noonan has the support of a sizeable minority in a Sunday Independent straw poll of TDs, senators and MEPs this weekend; however, most members have said they will not make a final decision on who to support until the full field is known.
In a poll of 40 of the 72 members of the parliamentary party yesterday, Michael Noonan has the backing of 16 of the members.
A further three say they are backing Enda Kenny while two TDs said they would give Jim Mitchell their number one.