Fine Gael four slug it out to be chosen Presidential one
But McGuinness leads party rivals ahead of crucial debate
FINE Gael’s four potential presidential candidates each got a chance to put their case before a special meeting of the parliamentary party today.
Pat Cox, Avril Doyle, Mairead McGuinness and Gay Mitchell got up to 10 minutes each to explain why they are the best candidate.
The party will select their candidate on 9 July.
Ahead of the selection convention Mairead McGuinness is leading her rivals in the race to get on the ticket.
But although the Ireland East MEP is widely perceived as the candidate to beat, she is still a long way off being guaranteed the nomination.
She still must fend off a charge from Gay Mitchell, Avril Doyle, or even Pat Cox, who has the lowest level of public support within the party. But a veteran TD described the contest as "Mairead -- and those against Mairead", with some people "voting to block someone else".
A large number of Fine Gael TDs and senators are still saying they have not made up their mind on who they will support at the candidate selection convention next week. And many are believed to be waiting for direction from the party hierarchy on which candidate to back.
"There are 12-15 turnips in the party waiting for a sign from the leadership," another TD said. "I don't see Pat Cox getting going unless the leadership comes out and backs him."
But Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Environment Minister Phil Hogan are both vowing to stay out of the debate.
And none of their fellow Cabinet ministers are saying which candidate they will support.
One senior party TD summed up the situation: "Mairead thinks Kenny is backing her, Gay thinks he's backing him, Cox is the anointed one, and Avril wouldn't be in it if she didn't think she had the blessing."
The venue for the convention on Saturday, July 9, has been moved to a bigger location, and will now take place in the Regency Airport Hotel on Dublin's northside.
Fine Gael TDs, senators and MEPs have 70pc of the votes in the complicated electoral college, so candidates are focusing their campaigns on members of the parliamentary party.
Ms McGuinness has the public backing of 10 TDs, with another three firmly backing her privately. Mr Mitchell has seven TDs behind him, with another one not willing to say so publicly. Ms Doyle has four TDs and senators weighed in behind her campaign. Mr Cox has just three TDs and senators publicly supporting him -- two of whom are in his constituency.
But the former European Parliament president's prospects are not being written off.
Mr Cox has been putting in a strong performance, despite the hostility towards his late entry into the race -- and the party.
"The feeling on the ground is not for Cox. But a lot of people haven't their minds made up," a party TD said.
"I don't believe Pat Cox is doing as badly as we think. He can't be," the senior TD said.
Of those who responded to the survey, 20 members of the parliamentary party said they hadn't actually made a decision yet and another 11 said they would not be revealing publicly who they were voting for.
Each candidate faces their own obstacles in the battle for further support -- Ms McGuinness is not seen as universally popular within the party; Mr Mitchell is not strong enough in rural areas; Ms Doyle has left it very late; and Mr Cox is the outsider.
"If I knew who was going to win, I'd be jumping on the bandwagon," a new TD said. But there is a growing sense that Ms McGuinness is in the box seat.
"It's hers to lose. It's the classic electoral contest. She's done the chicken and chips circuit."
Aside from the address to the parliamentary party today, TDs said polling this weekend would be important.
But some admitted they would probably not make a decision until the day of the convention.
"I would have thought Mairead would be home by now. But she's not. It'll go down to the speeches tomorrow and next week," a backbencher added.