Self-described “underdog” Simon Coveney received a significant boost to his flagging campaign, as it has emerged he is the preferred choice of voters to lead Fine Gael over Leo Varadkar.

As the candidates took harsh swipes at each other at the first of four regional hustings in Dublin last night, a new poll published minutes before the event began showed Mr Coveney is the public’s favourite to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

At the hustings last night, despite the wide belief that he cannot catch Mr Varadkar, Mr Coveney appeared buoyant and confident as he addressed more than 800 party members but admitted his campaign got off to a terrible start.

“I had a bad start for the first 48 hours to the campaign, there is no doubt about it,” Mr Coveney said, but argued that the real campaign starts now with the four hustings which conclude on Sunday night in Cork.

According to a poll conducted for the Irish Times by Ipsos MRBI showed that when asked for their preferred choice for leader of Fine Gael, 42% said Mr Coveney, while 37% opted for Mr Varadkar.

Over a fifth of voters said they did not know.

The poll also was able to identify the voting intentions of Fine Gael voters. Among that group, 48% opted for Mr Coveney and 44% for Mr Varadkar, with 8% undecided.

Unsurprisingly, the poll showed Mr Coveney is preferred by less well-off voters, older voters, farmers and those resident in Connacht-Ulster and Munster, where 56% say he is their choice.

Mr Varadkar leads in Dublin (with 44% support) and in Leinster, and also among the wealthier voters. While certainly the poll result will give Mr Coveney a boost heading into the final weekend of the campaign, it remains unclear whether he will gather enough support outside of the parliamentary party to overtake Mr Varadkar.

The debate between the two aspirant leaders was largely respectful in tone, but there were a number of pointed criticisms of each other.

Gavin Duffy presides over the first Fine Gael leadership hustings between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney last night. Picture: Stephen Collins
Gavin Duffy presides over the first Fine Gael leadership hustings between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney last night. Picture: Stephen Collins

Mr Coveney took a swipe at Mr Varadkar for preparing for the campaign for the past 12 months, but the social protection minister said it was not a bad thing to be prepared.

He clarified that he only began preparing in February but landed a sharp swipe back at Mr Coveney.

“If you can’t be prepared in three months... we often get less notice of a general election,” Mr Varadkar retorted.

Moderator Gavin Duffy said he didn’t envy Fine Gael members in the audience and around the county as they are “blessed an burdened in equal measure” by being tasked with deciding between two high calibre candidates.

Both men clashed on their differing views on the future of Fine Gael.

In his opening address, Mr Varadkar said that under his leadership Fine Gael “will stand for things and everyone will know what they are”.

However, in a thinly veiled attack on his opponent, Mr Coveney said: “Of course we need to help people who get up in the morning” but Fine Gael must also help the vulnerable and those who need motivation.

“The party that I love is about make a choice between two view points, I am deeply passionate about one and deeply concerned about the other.

“We have to represent the man in the sleeping bag on Grafton Street tonight, as well as the man creating 1,000 jobs.”

The housing minister admitted being the clear underdog in the race: “I am not used to that position, and I’m not overly happy about it either,” he said to loud applause.

“Underdog or not, I intend on carrying a powerful message which is what I am about in politics, what you see is what you get.”

Mr Varadkar said Mr Coveney’s party vision is akin to “trying to being all things to all men, but really you end up being nothing to nobody”.

The line of the night came from Mr Coveney, who quickly responded to Mr Varadkar after he had laid out his plans for health.

“If I have the privilege of being Taoiseach, I will remember that Leo has unfinished business in health,” he said to laughs and applause.

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