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Only thing Aras polls show is that anyone can win

Well, it's really up for grabs now. The only safe conclusion you can draw from the latest round of presidential opinion polls is that at least five of the seven candidates have a realistic chance of winning.

With so many colourful characters in the mix, a tense and unpredictable contest is in store -- and this is the week in which hand-to-hand combat can finally begin.

Different polls may throw up slightly different figures, but the big picture is clear by now. If David Norris meets Wednesday's deadline for close of nominations, he will start off in first place with Michael D Higgins and Martin McGuinness breathing down his neck.

Gay Mitchell (pictured) and Mary Davis are slightly further behind, while Sean Gallagher and Dana look like also-rans at this stage.

Of course, the one certainty about a seven-horse race is that nobody is going to win it on the first count.

This is where Higgins has a major advantage. The polls suggest that Labour's poet laureate is much more transfer-friendly than his rivals, which is why the smart money must be on him as the early favourite.

Love or loathe Martin McGuinness, there is no doubt that his arrival has given this election an injection of drama that it desperately needed.

Now that the IRA gunman's blatant lies are being exposed on a daily basis, a lot could hinge on one crucial question.

Are the other candidates prepared to go for the jugular over his murderous past or will they back off for fear of looking 'unpresidential'?

Gay Mitchell won't need to be asked twice. The Fine Gael man has got off to a lousy start, but the prospect of a Shinner in the Aras is just the cue he needs to get his formidable party machine behind him.

However, he must link his attacks directly to the specific IRA murders that the Butcher of the Bogside is thought to have ordered -- because a 'hit and hope' approach could have the unfortunate consequence of making McGuinness look like a victim.

Norris is also vulnerable to revelations about his past, even if he has ink on his hands rather than blood. He remains the wild card in this game, bursting with charisma but always on the brink of self-destruction.

Despite his impressive comeback over the past few days, his opponents are quietly confident that he will not last the course.


Davis, on the other hand, is a dark horse who should be taken very seriously.

Her poll numbers are rising slowly but surely, while the fact that nobody dislikes her means she could pull in transfers from all over the place.

The Special Olympics chief may not be the most exciting candidate, but one glance at the music charts will tell you that blandness is no barrier to mainstream success.

At the back of the field, Gallagher has failed to catch fire but still has a faint hope that his popularity will increase when people find out there's more to him than Dragons' Den.

Dana is the only complete no-hoper, even if her appeal to conservative Catholics will help to make this the 'all kinds of everything' election.

After all the fuss over who should be on the ballot paper, it is time for the real debate to get underway.

Just possibly, one of the contenders will blossom in the spotlight and end up cruising to victory.

More likely, this will be the political equivalent of the Grand National -- with plenty of horses coming a cropper and the lead changing hands several times before the winning post comes into view.

We may not be overly impressed with the quality of these candidates, but at least we can't complain about the quantity.

With such a wide choice on offer, the next president of Ireland will really have to earn the job -- and that's exactly how it should be.