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Battle for 2nd place in Irish election heats up

The fate of the party expected to finish second in the Irish election has emerged as a key issue in the shape of the country's next government.

While Enda Kenny, head of the Fine Gael party, sounded like a government leader already on Tuesday, Eamon Gilmore of second-place Labour was furiously chasing the votes he needs to share power.

"This campaign continues until 10 p.m. Friday evening," when the polls close, Gilmore said. "We will continue to knock on doors, to talk to people in the street."

Tuesday is the next-to-last day of active campaigning, and there is growing talk that the 60-year-old Kenny may lead his surging Fine Gael party to a big finish that would put it in a charge of a single-party government, perhaps with the support of a few independent legislators.

Gilmore's pitch is that a coalition government would be fairer than a government in which Fine Gael could do as it pleases.

"What we need is fair, balanced and stable government, and that will only happen if Labour is part of it," Gilmore said.

Gilmore had a chance to regain some ground Tuesday night in a televised three-way debate with Kenny and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail, the once-dominant party that saw its support collapse in Ireland's banking crisis. There were heated exchanges on Ireland's €67.5 billion ($92 billion) European Union/IMF bailout deal, with Kenny and Gilmore accusing Fianna Fail of dishonesty and Martin accusing them of the same thing.

Kenny criticized the bailout terms, Martin reminded Kenny that he voted for it, and Gilmore repeated several times that he had opposed the deal. All seemed to agree, though, that clarity about the way forward wouldn't come before stress tests on the banks are completed at the end of March.

Fine Gael, which had been the perennial second-place party, hasn't led a government since 1994-97, when Labour was part of the coalition. Labour and Fine Gael also formed ruling coalitions in 1948-51 and 1973-77.

In the 2007 election, the parties ran as a team but were beaten by Fianna Fail, which extended its string of winning the most seats in every Irish election since 1932.

But that was before Ireland's property boom collapsed, taking the nation's biggest banks down with it and forcing the country to accept the humiliating bailout.

Back in September, Labour was riding high in opinion polls with a share of around 33 percent. That emboldened the party to plaster the country with posters proclaiming "Gilmore for Taoiseach," the Irish title for the prime minister.

Since then, polls suggest that Labour's support has fallen to around 20 percent, while Fine Gael's lead has widened.

At a news conference Tuesday to promote the party's program for young people, Kenny was solemn verging on gloomy.

"I feel uncomfortable because of the thousands of parents I've met on this campaign who say their children are going, or have gone," Kenny said, invoking the old Irish sorrow over emigration when times get hard.

Going through the party's plans to create 20,000 jobs a year for five years, Kenny spoke of offering "a start of the beginning of a glimmer of new hope."

Gilmore, 55, seemed more cheerful leading a scrum of reporters and cameras down Grafton Street, the retail and tourism heart of Dublin. The first hand he shook turned out to belong to an Australian tourist.

He got some encouragement from Mags Hylands, 42, who declared she was "definitely" voting Labour.

"I believe in equality and I believe in fairness," she told a reporter to explain her vote.

Though the campaign opened with a widespread assumption that it would end in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, the parties squabbled about their respective plans for managing Ireland's shattered economy.

Labour accused Fine Gael of being bent on slashing spending to the detriment of ordinary people; Fine Gael branded Labour as a high-tax party.

Labour has accused Fine Gael of planning tax and benefit changes which will cost the average family €1,083 ($1,483) a year, including cuts in child benefit and unemployment compensation, higher water charges and a tax on university graduates.

"The Labour Party's continued refusal to engage with the public on the merits of its own policies is not working. It smacks of panic and desperation," Fine Gael education spokesman Fergus O'Dowd said last weekend.

Fine Gael would have to win 84 seats in the Dail, the lower house of Parliament, to have its own majority. If it wins somewhere in the high 70s, it could assemble a working coalition by wooing a few independents.

Fianna Fail is the only party ever to win 84 seats, in 1977. Fine Gael's best result was 70 seats — five fewer than Fianna Fail — in November 1982; Fine Gael then formed a coalition government with Labour.