The Irish Times view on the presidential election: the field takes shape

Every candidate faces the same challenge: how to make the case for replacing a popular president?

Speaking at the 87th Ploughing Championships in Tullamore, Co Offaly, President Michael D Higgins says he hopes the presidential race is "dignified" and "about real issues". Video: Bryan O'Brien

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With businessman Peter Casey having secured a nomination to contest the presidential election, it appears likely – barring a late surge or an early drop-out – that voters will have six candidates to choose from on October 26th. President Michael D Higgins will start as favourite and as the dominant figure in the race. That will work in his favour if it allows him to set the agenda, but it also means the effects of any missteps he makes on the campaign trail will be amplified.

Liadh Ní Riada of Sinn Féin is the only candidate to have been nominated by a political party. Her campaign got off to a bad start at the weekend when she left her own launch event before anyone could ask her a question. That followed a defensive interview on RTÉ Radio in recent weeks, and a lingering controversy over the MEP’s remark in 2016 that she would not allow her daughter to receive the HPV vaccine. (Ní Riada has since said she fully supports the vaccine).

If the 2011 election is any guide, Higgins’s strongest challenger will be Sean Gallagher, the upbeat entrepreneur who has kept a low profile since his failed tilt at the presidency seven years ago. The field is completed by businessman Gavin Duffy and Senator Joan Freeman.

In a contest that will inevitably turn into a referendum on the incumbent, the challengers all face a similar problem: how to make the case for replacing a popular president? That challenge was exemplified by Ní Riada’s opening pitch, in which she set out an agenda filled with themes – progressive politics, minority rights, national identity, and so on – that are synonymous with the sitting President.

To further complicate Sinn Féin’s task, Higgins is popular among young people while Gallagher, who is from Co Cavan, will do well in Border counties – two constituences on which Sinn Féin would typically aim to build a winning strategy.

No candidate, even a sitting President, is unbeatable. But the five challengers have a big task on their hands to make this a competitive election.

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