'I'm more qualified to lead', says Coveney as hustings battle begins
Housing Minister Simon Coveney relentlessly attacked Leo Varadkar's vision for Fine Gael and the country as he sought to win over the grassroots at the party's first hustings.
Mr Coveney, who is well behind in the leadership race, warned that his rival was going to take the party down a road members might not be comfortable with.
In a clear criticism of Mr Varadkar's carefully planned campaign for the leadership, he said: "I think it's better I don't say too much about the preparedness for this campaign. That preparation was going on for about 12 months from what I understand."
Mr Varadkar replied: "If you can't prepare in three months when it comes to a general election, we might get a lot less votes than that."
Over the course of two hours, the candidates went on to trade blows over their potential to lead the party and country.
Mr Coveney said the two contenders are offering "two very different viewpoints and two very different journeys".
He suggested his opponent wanted to favour a single cohort of voters, whereas he wanted a whole of society approach.
"Do we want to be a party that targets a core support base? Or do we want to be a party that represents everybody in this country? That is the choice.
"That is where, in my view, two good candidates have a different perspective," he said.
Mr Varadkar hit back by saying he expected "a few blows" and accused Mr Coveney of trying to characterise the race as left-wing versus right-wing.
He claimed the Housing Minister was trying to be a "catch all" candidate who wanted to represent "everyone in such a way that we represent nobody".
The Social Protection Minister said that was the Fianna Fail way of doing politics.
"We should not try to be all things to all people. Do that and we end up being nothing to anyone," he said.
The Dublin TD criticised Mr Coveney's decision to base his election pitch on the "Just Society" put forward by Declan Costello. He said it was 50 years old and should not frame the ideas of the 21st century.
Both leadership candidates outlined why they believe they would make a better taoiseach, with Mr Coveney saying the choice being taken by Fine Gael in the coming days is an "awesome responsibility".
The Cork TD offered himself as the candidate who is "most qualified" for the challenges ahead.
He said that, unlike Mr Varadkar, he has a proven record as an MEP and "knows how to keep a minority government together because he put it together".
Mr Coveney said he was somebody who made decisions like "sending a ship to the Mediterranean to fish children out of the sea".
To applause, Mr Varadkar used the hustings to expand on his definition of a controversial call for Fine Gael to be the party for "people who get up early in the morning".
He said these are people who "work in the public and private sectors, commuters, the self-employed, carers who look after loved ones, parents who get the kids ready for school, people who volunteer in their communities".
He said it should be Fine Gael's mission "to make their lives better, whether it's by reducing personal taxation, providing access to pensions and protecting their value, or improving social benefits like parental leave".
It comes as a new opinion poll shows Mr Coveney has overtaken Mr Varadkar as the public's favourite to replace Enda Kenny.
The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI survey showed that 42pc favoured Mr Coveney versus 37pc for Mr Varadkar. One in five voters answered "don't know".
Among Fine Gael voters, 48pc opted for Mr Coveney and 44pc for Mr Varadkar, with just 8pc undecided.