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Ahern backs Cowen, but rivals are waiting in the long grass

Bertie Ahern was claimed as the latest recruit for the 'We're Backing Brian' team last night but the former Taoiseach is said to have an agenda beyond tonight's vote.

With Brian Lenihan set to declare his support for Mr Cowen in the vote, the former Taoiseach -- like the majority of Dublin TDs -- will ultimately back the Finance Minister for the leadership.

Intrigue morphed toward conspiracy in the Fianna Fail leadership contest and gave flesh to the old Walter Scott verse: "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive."

While Micheal Martin's campaign gained ground yesterday, many TDs were intrigued by Equality Minister Pat Carey's rally behind the Taoiseach.

There was speculation that Mr Carey, who has been a long-time supporter of another leadership contender, Mary Hanafin, may have an incentive to back Mr Cowen.

The latest twist is that Noel Ahern, the brother of Bertie and Mr Carey's running mate in Dublin North West, would not be a candidate in the General Election. It also emerged that the candidate selection convention in Dublin North West has been postponed for a week.

As the sole Fianna Fail candidate, Mr Carey's chances of election would be greatly improved if Mr Ahern stood down.

This latest intrigue also highlights the geographical splits in the leadership contest as Munster backed Mr Martin and Dublin TDs moved behind Mr Cowen.

But many of the Dublin TDs see backing Mr Cowen as a means to eventually install Mr Lenihan as leader -- after the general election.

It is understood that even though the majority of the young blood TDs elected in 2007 do not want Mr Cowen to lead them into the election, they will support him this evening.

A well-informed source said that the majority of them believe that Mr Lenihan would be a better leader than Mr Martin and backing Mr Cowen now will ultimately help secure that end.

Many who served with Mr Martin in Cabinet see him as indecisive and not as good a prospect to lead Fianna Fail as Mr Lenihan, said one former minister last night.

It is understood Mr Cowen shares that view of Mr Martin even though he had many differences over the past two years with Mr Lenihan as Finance Minister. Trusted friends of Mr Cowen said he would also see Mr Lenihan as a better leader than Mr Martin.

A number of Dublin TDs were also intrigued by former minister Willie O'Dea's public declaration for Mr Martin yesterday -- and his claim that Mr Cowen didn't stand by him when he had to resign.

"Willie's affirmation of affection for Brian Cowen as he withdrew his support was like a Mafia boss declaring: 'It's business, not personal', when dispatching an old friend," said one Dublin TD.

As Mr Cowen and Mr Martin flitted between radio and television studios yesterday, the only people they were trying to impress were the 71 Fianna Fail TDs with a vote.

Mr Martin appeared to be more confident as the day wore on and close colleagues of Mr Cowen were becoming increasingly uncertain about the final result. When they did their sums over the weekend, Mr Cowen's team was very confident of having a substantial majority.

Last night one prominent Cowen supporter said: "A majority of one is still a win."

Irish Independent