McAleese and rivals show their paces at west's major horse fair

 

You are led to her and she takes you by the hand and locks you in her gaze. "Howya doin'? God bless. Lovely to meet you," she smiles straight into your eyes. And in that moment you are the only person in her universe.

Unless you're a reporter. Then her eyes fasten on your notebook as she reads upside down while you scribble.

All around Mary McAleese, men and women in suits exchange glances, planning where to steer her, spotting more potential hands to be taken in her firm, dry grip. Watching everything.

The buyers and sellers at the Ballinasloe International Horse Fair had a good look at Prof McAleese and her two rivals, Dana Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally, yesterday. Instead of feeling fetlocks and scrutinising molars, they filed past the review stand eyeing the three candidates.

Earlier, all three ate roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at separate tables during the festival committee lunch in Haydens Hotel. The management had covered the carpets in plastic sheeting as the festival crowds crushed in. "They must be making people in there," said a man waiting to get in said, "that many is coming out."

But Prof McAleese was first to the door and first down the street with her arms around her children, twins Justin and SaraMai (12) and Emma (15). Then, as if on cue, the PA system blasted out The Corrs singing happily about the "love in my soul".

There was a smattering of spontaneous applause from the crowded pavements and Fianna Fail TD, Mr Noel Treacy, loudly encourage it with his own applause as he walked alongside the candidate.

Mr Nally and Dana brought up the rear, arriving on the stage to sit on either side of Prof McAleese. A few chairs down, Ms Lorraine Duff, the queen of the fair, sat in her white brocade dress and red velvet cape - upstaged by the heady whiff of presidential glamour from the candidates, all three wearing trousers. Not a wellie in sight.

Dana got a round of applause, one of many, when it was announced that yesterday was a very special day - her 19th wedding anniversary. Mr Nally was philosophical about yesterday's opinion poll. Yes, he would like to poll better but he was glad to figure at all, having entered the race so late.

Prof McAleese said her lead was "very encouraging" and she was delighted with the apparent crossparty support. She was not worried about peaking too soon with four weeks left in the campaign. And she was anxious to let the people get the "measure of me", her favourite phrase to describe her campaign roadshow.

After reviewing the parade, which included a "selection of the most modern chainsaws and lawnmowers", Prof McAleese retired to a silver car to do radio interviews on a mobile phone. Her press handler, Ms Eileen Gleeson, sat beside her in the back seat with her notes and a curious crowd gathered around to watch.

Another quick walkabout, including a trip into a steamy pub, and the candidate was back in her car and heading for home. She did not choose to pick her way through any debris on the festival field in her high patent leather boots. A band played cover versions on the stage - Walking on Sunshine. And the sun was shining.

In the Enterprise Ireland show in the RDS on Saturday, the candidate drew the same stares. "Entourage," one man said simply, with a mixture of cynicism and awe.

Prof McAleese was accompanied by the Minister for Defence, Mr Andrews, and Junior Minister Ms Liz O'Donnell.

Mr Andrews, his own aspirations for the Park quietly shelved, brought people forward to meet the candidate. Setting up a photograph, the woman from the Small Firms Association urged him to step in. "Minister, c'mon in".

"Ah, ya don't want the Minister," he said. "We do. We do," she said, so he stepped into the frame.

Many came forward to offer the candidate their good wishes. One unprompted fan, Niall Kavanagh, from Rathfarnham, Dublin, assured her she would get his number one. "She's articulate, intelligent and a nationalist," he said when asked why.

Outside, she told a reporter people were "just holding out their arms" on the campaign trail and she was receiving "a great big welcome".