Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has given her clearest indication yet that she will join the Fine Gael leadership race after Health Minister Simon Harris ended speculation about his intentions.
sked about the prospect by the Irish Independent yesterday, Ms Fitzgerald replied: "I'm considering it very seriously. The last time there was a Fine Gael election for leader there were four candidates.
"I think it's very healthy for the party to have a very good debate leading up to the formal nomination of a new leader.
"I'm certainly very seriously considering it, but right now the Taoiseach is in place."
Ms Fitzgerald is viewed within Fine Gael as loyal to Enda Kenny and would be likely to be pick up votes from his supporters.
While the contest is still seen as a two-horse race between Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney, there is a growing view among TDs and senators that there should be a third candidate.
Some are concerned that if the race is just between Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney, it could split the party down the middle. "A third candidate would help stop it turning into a mud-slinging match," said one source.
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Education Minister Richard Bruton has yet to clarify his intentions, while some senior figures are still trying to convince Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe to run.
Ms Fitzgerald won't make any formal declaration before the Taoiseach publicly sets out his exit strategy. He travels to the US next weekend for a trip that includes stops in Philadelphia, Boston, Rhode Island, Washington and New York.
Party members expect Mr Kenny to outline his plans when he returns after St Patrick's Day - but he is unlikely to vacate office before the end of April.
"I'll await further developments before I say anything else," Ms Fitzgerald said, adding that it was a "very important" time for the party.
"The party has a very serious role to play in Irish society. We deserve to have a very good debate leading to the election of a new leader," she said.
Asked whether she had lined up seven party members who could nominate her for the leadership contest, she replied: "I'll deal with that when the time comes, yes."
Earlier, Mr Harris, who is viewed in political circles as Ms Fitzgerald's protégé, said it would be "inappropriate" for him to run when the Department of Health was under intense pressure.
"I've made my decision, I'm very satisfied with that, and I'm sure many other people are considering their options in the coming days and weeks," he said.
His announcement immediately heightened speculation that the way was being cleared for the Justice Minister to put her name forward.
Mr Harris told RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke programme that it felt a tilt at the leadership was "worth giving consideration to".
However, he said being Health Minister was "one of the most difficult jobs in the Irish Government".
"Being Minister for Health is a bit like eating an elephant. You've got to do it bite by bite," Mr Harris said.
He declined to say who he would support in the contest, but described Ms Fitzgerald as his mentor. "My loyalty is to the Taoiseach, and when the Taoiseach makes his decision to step aside I'll make my decision on who to support," he said.