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Ireland's premier, opposition rival to clash in TV debate week before election

Ireland's premier, opposition rival to clash in TV debate week before election

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his rival for the office, Fine Gael party leader Enda Kenny, prepared Thursday for their only live television debate one week before parliamentary elections.
Ahern, in power since 1997, and Kenny were scheduled for an 80-minute confrontation Thursday night on Irish national broadcaster RTE. Analysts said the winner could deliver a crucial swing in support in the run-up to the tightly-contested May 24 vote.
Recent polls have put Ahern's Fianna Fail party narrowly ahead of Fine Gael, but Kenny has better opportunities for forging a coalition with smaller left-wing parties, who say they want Fianna Fail out of power.
The prevailing coalition of Ahern's Fianna Fail and the pro-business, anti-tax Progressive Democrats is being given little chance of returning to power, chiefly because the Progressive Democrats are rating just 3 percent in polls.
Fianna Fail has won the most seats in Ireland's parliament in every election since 1932, but it has not been able to form a majority on its own since 1977.
Ireland's bookmakers have made the prospect of a so-called "rainbow" coalition _ combining the centrist Fine Gael with the left-wing Labour and Green parties _ the heavy favorite to gain power. A three-party government led by Fine Gael last governed Ireland from 1995 to 1997.
No clear winner emerged from Wednesday night's unruly live TV debate among four leaders of smaller parties: Labour's Pat Rabbitte, the Progressive Democrats' Michael McDowell, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and the Greens' Trevor Sargent.
During an hour of ill-tempered verbal sparring, Rabbitte accused McDowell of being a "menopausal Paris Hilton" bent on attention-seeking stunts. McDowell, in turn, accused Sinn Fein of benefiting from tens of millions of dollars supplied by cocaine-trafficking guerrillas in Colombia, a charge Adams denied.