DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has opened up a commanding lead in the race to succeed Enda Kenny as prime minister after securing the publicly declared support of most of his Fine Gael parliamentary party.
Kenny resigned as head of the governing center-right party on Wednesday, kicking off a contest between Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney to take over. Fine Gael will pick its new leader by June 2.
Varadkar, the son of an Indian immigrant and Ireland's first openly gay minister, has won the backing of 37 of Fine Gael's 73 lawmakers before even officially launching his campaign, according to public declarations and media reports.
Nineteen have said they would vote for Coveney, and 17 have yet to say who they will back.
The 73 lawmakers, under party rules, account for 65 percent of the selection vote, with the balance split between ordinary party members and councillors, whom an Irish Times tracking poll showed were evenly split so far.
"It's essentially over as a race," said Eoin O'Malley, politics lecturer at Dublin City University.
"It would have to break two-to-one for Coveney among the party members to give him a chance, and only a chance. That's not going to happen. Any opinion polls of Fine Gael members have shown that the majority prefer Varadkar."
Varadkar, whose supporters came out in force on Thursday to hand him the early advantage, secured the backing of a number of senior colleagues on Friday including foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan and Paschal Donohoe, the favorite to take over as finance minister from the retiring Michael Noonan.
Supporters of Varadkar say his straight-talking manner could widen the party's appeal after Kenny's steady stewardship and boost their position in the polls ahead of elections likely late next year.
Varadkar was careful not to sound triumphant, however.
"It's definitely not (over)," he told reporters. "It's day two of a 16-day contest. It's started really well and I'm really humbled at the level of support I have received from my colleagues, (but) I'm not counting my chickens."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)