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Presidential race has become deadly serious affair

Suddenly, the contest that was being joked and laughed about a few weeks ago is the main topic of conversation everywhere you go.

It's dominating the news bulletins, competing for space night after night with the crisis in the euro. And there's still five weeks to go before we elect our next president.

What is it about presidential elections that they suddenly become such hot topics?

It's supposed to be a ceremonial office, after all, with no power. A beauty contest, that's what they call it -- and lately some started sneering at it as a reality TV show.

And yet our most respected commentators are attacking each other as if this was the presidency of the United States they were talking about.

There's magic in the Irish presidency, no doubt about it.

I've always argued, here and elsewhere, that once the contest was formed it would become a deadly serious affair, and the cynics would have to retire to their corners muttering while the people vote.

Some of these contests have been invigorating and inclusive -- when Mary Robinson was elected two out of every three citizens voted. Some of them have got so dirty that people became turned off -- in Mary McAleese's election fewer than half the people participated.

But all of them that have been contested have been exciting -- and they all excited passion. Before this election is even formally under way, you can sense the excitement.

The questions are forming already in people's minds -- and the only certainty is that by the time October 27 comes around, there will have been at least a few more twists and turns that none of us can predict right now.


A week ago, for example, David Norris's candidacy was a fading memory. By this time tomorrow he may be back, full steam ahead.

That would be good and healthy if it were to happen, because we will know at last what people really think.

A couple of weeks ago, Mary Davis was being dismissed as an unknown who had once done a great thing.

The first opinion poll later, she emerges as the leading independent -- when, it seems, half the population would rather vote for an independent. And she may well have the considerable advantage of being the only woman in the race -- in an era where people readily accept that women can do this job brilliantly.

A week ago, Sinn Fein were idly speculating about any number of candidates they might run. As we now know, it was a brilliant bluff, designed to lull Fianna Fail into a stupid sense of security before they pulled the pin out of the hand grenade (politically speaking, that is).

And yet the decision to run Martin McGuinness could turn into a Sarah Palin moment -- a brilliant audacious stroke at first glance, that fizzled out as some rigorous scrutiny was applied. It may not, of course -- the next couple of weeks will tell.

A couple of weeks ago, this election was Fine Gael's to lose. The party and its leader were on the crest of an unprecedented wave of popularity. But they seem to have chosen a candidate in Gay Mitchell who has singularly failed to resonate with the people. We have yet to see the real Fine Gael campaign, of course -- of all the political parties they are the ones with money to spend and a well-oiled national machine.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael D Higgins was being dismissed as too old and too jaded a politician to have any appeal.

But lo and behold he's leading the race, and going gangbusters. What looked old to the commentators looks experienced, and maybe even wise, to the voters. He is now, without question, the one to beat.

The celebrities have come and gone. Battle is ready to be joined.

And it will be fascinating. Right now, there are tens of thousands of people who haven't a clue who they will vote for in the end.

The struggle for their hearts and minds will be exciting to watch.