SIMON Coveney is going into the weekend with momentum in the leadership race thanks to a strong performance in last night's debate and a poll showing that he is the public's preferred candidate.
Mr Coveney and Leo Varadkar went head to head in Red Cow Hotel in Dublin last night in the first of four debates to be held before internal voting for leader of Fine Gael takes place last week.
Minutes before the debate began, an Irish Times poll was published showing that 42% of the public backed Mr Coveney, while 37% backed Mr Varadkar. That vote was split 48% to 44% in Mr Coveney's favour among Fine Gael supporters. However, he will have an uphill battle to overtake Mr Varadkar's 46 to 20 lead in the parliamentary party.
Speaking to the Evening Echo after the debate, Mr Coveney said that the poll showed that he was right to stay in the race.
"There are some people who continue to peddle this view that Leo is more popular than Simon, so we should vote for Leo because he will help us win our seats. The poll that was out this evening shows that that is not the case," he said.
Having recieved a strong response from Mr Varadkar's hometown crowd last night, Mr Coveney said that he had proven that this election was about more than geography and personalities "I know a lot of people in Dublin, and I think the assumption that everyone in Dublin wants to vote for Leo and not for me isn't true. Just like there is some people in Cork, I'm sure, who will vote for him. This is a national election, and I think, I hope, people will make their choice on the basis of what Fine Gael politics can contribute to making Ireland a better place. I think both Leo and I have a different perspective on that, and I think that's what makes this a contest of ideas, as well as a contest of personality," he said.
The two men presented different contrasting visions of what Fine Gael could be, with Mr Varadkar describing the party's core values as being rewarding ambition and enterprise and that they needed to prioritise "the coping class, the squeezed middle, middle Ireland." Mr Coveney said that the party needed to do that while also protecting vulnerable people and being a party that governed for all types of people, even if they would never vote for Fine Gael.
However, Mr Varadkar criticised Mr Coveney's approach saying that it is "trying to being all things to all men, but really you end up being nothing to nobody."
He also got significant applause for speaking about how he wants the party to take on Sinn Fein, and said that the party should look at unifying Ireland, not by winning a border poll by 50% +1, but by uniting communities.
Mr Coveney landed what was seen by many as the line of the night after Mr Varadkar, the former Health Minister, said that he wanted to do more for the Irish healthcare system.
"If I have the privilege of being Taoiseach, I'll remember that Leo has unfinished business in health," hinting at how his Cabinet might look.
The two candidates will face off again in Carlow tonight, in Galway tomorrow night, and then in the Clayton Silver Springs in Cork on Sunday night.