Heavyweights square up in the battle to succeed Enda
The two frontrunners in the Fine Gael leadership battle believe their campaigns will be energised by a series of high-profile endorsements from ministers and TDs in the coming days.
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney will today step up their efforts to succeed Enda Kenny in a race that senior party figures fear will become deeply personal and divisive.
Supporters of both candidates last night ramped up their negative campaigning, which has been intense and constant despite public denials from both ministers.
Mr Coveney's camp has accused Mr Varadkar's supporters of "dirty tricks" following claims that the Cork TD will use his family's personal wealth to fund his election campaign.
However, senior sources in Mr Varadkar's inner circle say Mr Coveney's camp is intent on "attacking" his character.
One source said Mr Varadkar is braced for further negative campaigning, adding: "They're getting very desperate."
Mr Varadkar expects a flurry of TDs and senators to publicly endorse him in the coming days, following the decision by Mr Kenny to step down as Fine Gael leader overnight.
All eyes will be on Cabinet heavyweights such as Paschal Donohoe, Michael Noonan, Heather Humphreys and Charlie Flanagan, all of whom have refused to publicly declare.
Education Minister Richard Bruton will also make a much-anticipated statement. He has refused to rule himself out of the race, with some in the party describing him as the "compromise candidate".
Mr Varadkar has no public events scheduled over the next 24 hours but sources say this could change.
Last night, the Dublin West TD tweeted: "Thank you Enda. FG's most successful leader. Brought FG from decline to success, Ireland from brink of bankruptcy to prosperity."
Mr Coveney is due to address the media before attending events in Clare and Cork tomorrow and Saturday. The Housing Minister described Mr Kenny as "a towering figure in modern Irish history".
The electorate for the Fine Gael contest is split on the following grounds: Parliamentary party (65pc), rank-and-file members (25pc) and councillors (10pc).
This means that securing the support of the majority of TDs, senators and MEPs is crucial to the outcome.
According to declarations to date, Mr Varadkar is ahead in terms of the parliamentary party.
His known supporters include: Junior ministers Eoin Murphy and Sean Kyne, TDs John Paul Phelan, Noel Rock, Michael D'Arcy, Josepha Madigan, Pat Deering, Jim Daly, Tom Neville and Brendan Griffin, and senators Neale Richmond and Catherine Noone.
Others expected to back Mr Varadkar include ministers Mr Donohoe, Paul Kehoe and Joe McHugh, as well as Galway deputy Ciaran Cannon, MEP Brian Hayes and senators Martin Conway, Frank Feighan, Maria Byrne and Ray Butler.
While Mr Coveney has fewer declared supporters in the parliamentary party, he is known to have won the backing of Health Minister Simon Harris.
Junior ministers Damien English and Dara Murphy are leading figures in his campaign, along with TDs Kate O'Connell and Maria Bailey and senators Tim Lombard, Paudie Coffey and Jerry Buttimer.
He is also believed to have the support of the party's remaining three MEPs Deirdre Clune, Sean Kelly and Mairead McGuinness.
Meanwhile, Independent Alliance minister Finian McGrath confirmed he has spoken to both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney amid concerns that the change of Taoiseach could trigger an election.
Mr McGrath added he and other Independent ministers have their own "shopping lists" and that these will be discussed with the successful candidate.
"Both of them have said they would be very interested in sticking to the three-year plan - to implement as much as possible the Programme for Government," he said.
Mr McGrath thinks an early election is unlikely but said: "You never know in politics."
Asked if the Alliance would have fresh demands for the next taoiseach, he said: "We'll be sitting down with the new taoiseach and we will be pushing forward the projects that we have in mind."
His own list includes a new Accident and Emergency unit for Beaumont Hospital.