Fitzgerald considers bid as Harris opts out of FG race
Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald has given her clearest indication yet that she will join the Fine Gael leadership race after Health Minister Simon Harris ended speculation about his intentions.
Mr Harris, who is viewed in political circles as Ms Fitzgerald's protege, said it would be "inappropriate" for him to run when the Department of Health is under intense pressure.
"I've made my decision, I'm very satisfied with that and I'm sure many other people are considering their options in the coming days and weeks," he said.
His announcement immediately heightened speculation that the way was being cleared for the justice minister to put her name forward.
Asked about the prospect yesterday, Ms Fitzgerald replied: "I'm considering it very seriously. The last time there was a Fine Gael election for leader there were four candidates.
"I think it's very healthy for the party to have a very good debate leading up to the formal nomination of a new leader.
"I'm certainly very seriously considering it but right now the Taoiseach is in place."
Ms Fitzgerald is viewed within Fine Gael as loyal to Enda Kenny and would be likely to be pick up votes from his supporters.
While the contest is still seen as a two-horse race between Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney, there is a growing view among TDs and senators that there should be a third candidate.
Some are concerned that, if the race is just between Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney, it could split the party down the middle.
"A third candidate would help stop it turning into a mud-slinging match," one source said.
Education Minister Richard Bruton has yet to clarify his intentions, while some senior figures are still trying to convince Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe to run.
Ms Fitzgerald won't make any formal declaration before the Taoiseach sets out his exit strategy.
He travels to the US next weekend for a trip that includes Philadelphia, Boston, Rhode Island, Washington and New York. Party members expect him to outline plans on his return.