FG leadership battle is Varadkar's to lose after strong start leaves Coveney struggling
Leo to secure backing of party heavyweights Donohoe and Doherty
The Fine Gael leadership contest is Leo Varadkar's to lose after a flood of endorsements gave him a clear lead over Simon Coveney.
Mr Varadkar went to ground on the opening day of the race, opting instead to send out a string of ministers, TDs and senators in a series of carefully choreographed media appearances.
Three Cabinet ministers have publicly backed his bid to succeed Enda Kenny. And the Irish Independent understands Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Government chief whip Regina Doherty will follow suit today.
A tally of declared votes puts the Social Protection Minister 10 ahead within the parliamentary party, despite Mr Coveney's camp believing it would win this section of the electorate.
Mr Coveney said yesterday that 20 people signed his nomination papers but last night refused to publish the list, claiming some were not willing to go public yet. The show of strength from Mr Varadkar was a clear attempt to gain the early momentum and lure undecided TDs and senators to his camp.
"We're very happy with the numbers but we're taking nothing for granted," a source close to the minister said.
The big surprise was Richard Bruton's declaration as many within the party believed he would offer himself up as a third candidate. He said he contacted Mr Coveney yesterday morning to inform him of his decision but was not able to reach Mr Varadkar.
"This will be the first Leo would have heard (of my decision)," he said, adding that Mr Varadkar had the "strengths" required to address the challenges facing the country and the Fine Gael party.
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald cleared the way for the contest to be a two-horse race, saying that after serious consideration running would not be "the right decision" for her.
She has yet to declare support for either candidate, with one colleague last night describing her as "an enigma".
Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor and Rural Development Minister Heather Humphreys also came out in favour of Mr Varadkar.
Ms Humphreys' vote is seen as particularly significant as her Cavan/Monaghan constituency has a large Fine Gael membership and will also help the Dublin West TD bridge the urban/rural divide.
The most high-profile declaration for Mr Coveney was Health Minister Simon Harris who appeared alongside him at a press conference.
Sources in the Coveney camp last night insisted there was no sense of panic.
"One-third of the parliamentary party is still in play. Leo's strategy was Blitzkrieg but a lot of it is smoke and mirrors," said one source.
Mr Coveney is still hoping to secure the backing of Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, and while they won't publicly declare it, it is believed Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan will support him. The Housing Minister's director of election Damien English last night noted he has the support of 28 of the 31 councillors in Cork and Kerry. Mr Coveney will travel to Ennis today for a series of engagements, including the Clare Fine Gael AGM.
His campaign is built around a message of "strong, positive government with big ideas".
"As far as I'm concerned I'm fighting for the soul of this party," he said yesterday.
He said his manifesto would be an attempt to "rebalance this country away from the dominance of Dublin so that rural people and rural parishes can believe in their futures again"
Asked whether he has the X Factor, Mr Coveney said: "That depends on what you describe as the X Factor. For me it's about honest, strong, delivery.
"I don't think that a family living in a hotel room this evening is looking for a Taoiseach with X Factor. They are looking for a Taoiseach who'll solve their problems.
"The US voted for someone with the X-factor, look how that's turning out," he said on RTÉ's Prime Time.
Mr Coveney refused to give a guarantee that his rival would be in the next Cabinet if he wins the contest.
"Leo's a talented guy. He'll be involved in the future of the party one way or the other. I'm not going to start naming Cabinet positions," he said.
The Fine Gael National Executive confirmed last night that four regional debates would take place in Dublin, Carlow, Ballinasloe and Cork.