THE latest Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll indicates that David Norris is the people's choice for the Aras, unless something derails his campaign.
Mr Norris holds 37 per cent of the vote, almost three times as much support as his two closest rivals, the poll shows.
The result will come as a particular disappointment to Michael D Higgins. Though the Labour veteran is in joint second place with 13 per cent, he has only gained 1 percentage point.9 per cent of voters had originally supported his two rival Labour candidates.
Today's figures are bad news for the political establishment for far more serious reasons. In the wake of a number of council decisions not to support Mr Norris, the possibility now exists of a damaging constitutional crisis over the inability of the political system to facilitate the entry into the race of the people's preferred candidate for the Park.
Ironically, in the wake of the decision of their preferred candidate Niall O'Dowd not to run, Sinn Fein may emerge as unlikely saviours of the establishment's blushes.
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The party has intimated privately that it may facilitate the nomination of Norris on the pragmatic grounds that "no one ever objects to securing a position on the winner's rostrum''.The formidable capacity of Norris to hoover up the Independent vote means that in spite of some success in securing council nominations, Mary Davis (7 per cent) and Sean Gallagher (5 per cent) continue to trail the field.
In a week that was dominated by the battle for the Fine Gael nomination, the poll contains mixed messages for that party's candidates.
Pat Cox (13 per cent) continues to be the preferred choice of voters when it comes to Fine Gael but the gap between Cox and his two main rivals -- Gay Mitchell (9 per cent) and Mairead McGuinness (9 per cent) -- is not wide enough to force the party to nominate the former PD.
The result will be particularly disappointing for Gay Mitchell, who has dropped 2 percentage points since the most recent poll just over a month ago, while Avril Doyle, on 5 per cent, is now effectively out of the race.
However yesterday former Taoiseach John Bruton signed Gay Mitchell's nomination papers -- a significant endorsement seven days before members of Fine Gael's parliamentary party, councillors and national executive meet to pick their candidate.
In theory, Fine Gael, whose four candidates have 36 per cent, could still catch Norris but the inability of Michael D Higgins to capture the voters who had planned to support his Labour rivals indicates that such an analysis may be over-optimistic.
This, of course, will not detract from the intensity of the ongoing FG internal battle. One senior figure said: "It's Enda's choice as to whether Cox runs. Realistically, if there is an appetite for winning, then we will have to leave old dislikes aside."
The source added that while Ms McGuinness was "affable and very pleasant", fears exist that "her CV is too limited in terms of achievement. She doesn't have the life experiences and the intellectual hardware to convince".
However, a powerful rural backer of Ms McGuinness dismissed this as "typical south Co Dublin snobbery''.
All factions now believe that a group of 30 TDs who are rather unflatteringly referred to as "the turnips'' will decide.
One senior source told the Sunday Independent: "The turnips are those who prefer not to think and are proud of their willingness not to do so. They're waiting for Enda or Phil to tell them what to do and they'll do it then."
Meanwhile Fianna Fail's plans to "tiptoe gently away'' from the race are in serious danger of being scuppered by the belated entrance of Eamon O Cuiv into the frame.
The grandson of the party's founder Eamon de Valera has not formally requested the nomination but he has let it be known amongst media outlets and within the party that he'd be available, if asked.
The mood within the party is split between those who fear that "all we need now is for some jackass to persuade O Cuiv to declare and we're sunk'' and others who fret that "the loan of FF votes in the election may become permanent if we don't contest".