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Crowded field makes winning Presidency no walk in Park

A DAMAGING scandal; hints of sinister doings; intense party rivalry, an outsider parachuted in; and the surprise candidate. They are the ingredients not of a political pot boiler, but the campaign for Ireland's presidency.

Not a single candidate has been formally nominated, but the race for the Aras is already gathering momentum.

In the next four weeks, the main political parties will have chosen their nominees and the county councils should have established by then which of the independents they are backing. (Independent candidates need either 20 Oireachtas members or four county councils to nominate them for the presidency.)

The pitch is getting crowded. Niall O'Dowd, who lives in America, played a part in the peace process and is pals with Bill Clinton, threw his hat in the ring as an independent last week. Gay Mitchell, the veteran MEP, also declared his interest in running under the Fine Gael banner.

A presidential controversy has taken its toll on Senator David Norris, who hinted at sinister timing behind the rehashing of old interviews which, ludicrously, forced him into a declaration that he did not condone paedophilia.

His rivals may have stayed out of the public mudslinging but they are circling the county councils that may now waver at supporting Norris. Sean Gallagher, the entrepreneur who is pitching himself as a pro-business independent was somewhere "in the southern counties" last week where a spokesman said he is "quietly" mustering support from county councils. Mary Davis, the former head of the Special Olympics, has also been conducting a discreet canvass.

The Labour Party will chose its candidate next week and Fine Gael will nominate a candidate in early July.

The Labour contest appears pretty much over before it's even begun. Michael D Higgins, the former Galway TD, is widely expected to see off Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos, and Kathleen O'Meara, a senator.

The real drama is whipping up nicely in Fine Gael. A party convention of Oireachtas members, councillors and party executives to select its nominee will be held early next month. Following the withdrawal of former Taoiseach John Bruton, the party hierarchy has presented an alternative in the form of Pat Cox, a former president of the European Parliament, who will do battle with Mairead McGuinness and Gay Mitchell, both MEPs.

Mr Cox, a founder of the Progressive Democrats, came to the aid of Fine Gael in advance of the general election, advising the party on Europe, but balked at standing for election as a Fine Gael TD. It seems the Presidency is more to his taste.

He is, however, not to the taste of all in Fine Gael. When it was clear that Mr Cox was going to seek the party nomination, a Fine Gael rump -- including a couple of cabinet ministers -- went in search of an alternative, according to sources. They found Gay Mitchell, a former minister and brother of the late Jim Mitchell, and a pedigree Blueshirt. The blue bloods of the party asked him to stand to represent the core values of the coping class, which they see as the party's heartland.

Mr Mitchell declared his interest last Monday, on the same day Mr Cox confirmed he had formally applied to Fine Gael to become a member of the party and therefore become eligible to seek the presidential nomination.

On Friday, Mr Mitchell said he was definitely going after the nomination: "My life's journey has taken me from the home of my widowed mother in Inchicore to the Dail, the Mansion House, Iveagh House and Brussels," he said in a statement.

Mairead McGuinness will give him a run for his money where such down-home sentiment is concerned. She is known as a no-nonsense, hard-working and down-to-earth MEP who has stolen the march on her colleagues.

Mr Cox will have to wait until Tuesday for formal notification that he can join Fine Gael. Mr Mitchell has been out of the trap since the weekend. Meanwhile, Ms McGuinness has been circulating a letter to all Fine Gael TDs and senators last week, followed up with some impressive schmoozing at a parliamentary party meeting.

Fianna Fail, meanwhile, is not even at the races.

Brian Crowley, a Fianna Fail MEP from Cork and a poll-topper for the party, has made no secret of his presidential ambitions. Mr Crowley told Micheal Martin a couple of weeks ago that he was available, if required, according to a source. Eamon O Cuiv has also been tipped as a candidate and he hasn't put himself out of the running. But Mr Martin has yet to make up his mind. Fianna Fail's executive and the parliamentary party are expected to weigh up the pros and cons in the next fortnight. But running a candidate is unlikely.

At a national executive meeting two weeks ago, Mary Hanafin gave an impassioned plea in favour of putting forward a presidential candidate -- not that she was suggesting herself. Michael Martin pointed out that the party couldn't afford such luxuries, according to sources. The discussion continued afterwards in the corridors, according to one source, who quoted a senior party official: "Who is going to give Fianna Fail €500,000 to run a candidate?"

Sunday Independent