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Personal popularity could hold key to Ahern victory

By Noel McAdam

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has held out the real prospect of defeat for his party in the Republic's general election by insisting voters face two " very different" alternatives.

But Fianna Fail is expected to gain significantly from Mr Ahern's continued popularity - the so-called "Bertie bounce" - after being reaffirmed in an Irish Times opinion poll last week as the country's favourite political leader.

And apart from being out on the hustings in most parts of the Republic, Mr Ahern also has a series of high-profile events lined up in the run-up to the election on May 24.

First comes his visit to Northern Ireland on the first day of devolution next Tuesday, when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness accept joint office; then the meeting with First Minister Paisley at the Boyne three days later and his historic address to the British Houses of Parliament, the Commons and the Lords, on May 16.

Nonetheless Mr Ahern's first note in his election campaign yesterday was decidedly downbeat. While attempting to deflect the challenge posed by Sinn Fein, by pledging to work for "lasting peace and (Irish) unity", the Taoiseach also firmly warned: "No one knows what the outcome of this election will be."

The admission was viewed as an indication that Mr Ahern knows he has an uphill battle ahead to win a third election in a row.

Though an announcement of an election in the south had been long anticipated, Mr Ahern still managed to spring a surprise by visiting President Mary McAleese at breakfast time yesterday.

It took all of 10 minutes for the President to dissolve the Dail just after 8am, only a few hours before she left for an official visit to the United States which gave some the impression it was a 'rushed job'.

Others, however, would have been able to sign the Proclamation of Dissolution in her absence.

But Mr Ahern declined to take questions from journalists when he went to Aras an Uachtarian to see Mrs McAleese and again later when he made his initial speech.

Ministers and TDs had returned to their constituencies expecting Mr Ahern to delay calling the election when the Dial resumes.

Instead senior journalists from the main news organisations were called just before midnight on Saturday and told to be on standby to be at Aras an Uachtarain at two hours notice.

A tight fight between Fianna Fail and their coalition partners the Progressive Democrats and the partnership of Fine Gael and Labour with possible Green participation is expected.

See page 14

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