By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Reporter
Fianna Fáil by-election candidate Bobby Aylward has been placed a significant 7.2% ahead of his nearest rival in the first official count for the empty seat in Carlow-Kilkenny this evening.
The former TD - who in 2011 lost the seat held by members of his family since the 1970s - gained 27.8% of the first preference votes cast, ahead of Fine Gael's David Fitzgerald on 20.6%.
Sinn Féin's candidate Kathleen Funchion is also trailing on 16.24%, but is expected to hold at least third position after Renua's Patrick McKee gained 9.5%.
Labour's Willie Quinn has held a solid 7% vote after a reasonable backing from his Carlow base balanced out difficulties elsewhere, while the Greens' Malcolm Noonan has also polled 5.4%.
The percentage breakdown is likely to mean Mr Aylward will take home the Dáil seat it was strongly predicted he would win, as Fine Gael will need a major transfers swing to change the result. David Fitzgerald is already almost 5,000 votes behind (Fianna Fáil's 18,572 to Fine Gael's 13,744).
While Fine Gael are hopeful that a significant amount of the 36% transfer votes from candidates below Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin will come their way - with party sources saying they believe 21% will be split between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - it will need a major switch to have a leadership change at this stage.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Renua leader Lucinda Creighton this evening both claimed a moral victory in the standings, saying they believe they are now well placed for a push for what is believed to be a soft fifth seat in the general election.
However, previous hopes by the parties that they might break up the two horse constituency by-election race appear to have proven unfounded.
While Fianna Fáil's Bobby Aylward was refusing to confirm he will return to the Dáil just yet, all eyes will be on his party leader Micheal Martin when he arrives at the count centre tonight.
The likely Fianna Fáil victory will be his first in a by-election after six previous by-election bids, a statistic which put his leadership credentials under major strain in recent months.
Total poll 68900
Total valid poll 66834
Fianna Fáil, Bobby Aylward
Fine Gael, David Fitzgerald
Sinn Féin, Kathleen Funchion
Renua Ireland, Patrick McKee
Labour, Willie Quinn
Green Party, Malcolm Noonan
Independent, Breda Gardner
People before Profit, Adrienne Wallace
Anti-Austerity Alliance, Conor MacLiam
Identity Ireland, Peter O Loughlin
Independent, Daithi Holohan
Independent, Noel G Walshe
National Citizens Movement, Elizabeth Hourihane
(O Loughlin, Holohan, Walshe and Hourihane eliminated on the first count)