Bookies' favourite: Micheál Martin talks to the press outside his Cork home yesterday

IF THE "bookies never lose", then Micheál Martin will be the leader of the Fianna Fáil party by Wednesday afternoon.

The Cork South-Central TD has been installed at odds of just 1-20 with Ladbrokes and 1-25 with Paddy Power to become the eighth leader of the Soldiers of Destiny.

But the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, who was the one senior figure to publicly oppose a confidence motion in Brian Cowen last week, will not assume the Fianna Fáil throne without a fight.

The finance minister Brian Lenihan last night declared he would be a contestant for the leadership and he was canvassing the party's TDs for support within an hour of Cowen's resignation.

Tourism minister Mary Hanafin was yesterday said to be "taking soundings from backbenchers" and may enter the race initially at least.

Social protection minister Éamon Ó Cuív last night confirmed that he will contest this week's Fianna Fáil leadership contest.

However, in reality the leadership contest is likely to boil down to a straight fight between Martin and Lenihan. Martin clearly has the upper hand, at this point at least.

Speaking last week before Cowen's resignation, one senior party figure said, "Micheál Martin is definitely the next leader. Lenihan will recover but Micheál has come out of it incredibly well. He gave an incredibly passionate speech to the parliamentary party. We had never seen that before."

Thirteen TDs – over one-third of the number he will need – immediately came out on the airwaves in favour of Martin yesterday, including four in Lenihan's Dublin heartland: Michael Mulcahy, Chris Andrews, Sean Haughey and Sean Ardagh. No TD came out to endorse any contestant other than Martin. Inevitably, the early groundswell in favour of Martin will could lead to calls that the Corkman should be elected leader without a contest. However, this was dismissed yesterday by informed sources.

"Brian Cowen was an agreed candidate and look how that turned out. A coronation is not such a great idea," one source said, adding that the contest did not need to be bitter and divisive.

Nominations for the leadership were opened yesterday and any TD with aspirations to take over from Cowen must be proposed and seconded by two TDs, and give their nomination paper to party chairman John Browne by 1pm on Monday.

A special meeting to elect the new leader will be held at 2pm on Wednesday in Fianna Fáil's party rooms in Leinster House.

Both Martin and Lenihan have their advantages and disadvantages as prospective leaders.

Martin is an excellent communicator and would help lift the party in Munster, but his detractors point out that he was the minister who set up the HSE and was enterprise and employment minister at a time when the budget at Fás was getting out of control.

Others say that his only major ministerial achievement was the smoking ban and that is not really an asset in the midst of the biggest financial crisis in the state's history.

Lenihan would have been comfortably elected leader if the contest had happened a number of months ago and would help the party's fortunes in the key Dublin battleground.

Also a strong communicator, Lenihan is one of the Fianna Fáil TDs considered to hold a 'safe seat'.

However, he has been damaged by the arrival of the EU/IMF and by his decision to back Cowen in last week's confidence motion. The finance minister's support for Cowen on RTé's News at One programme last Tuesday quickly triggered fury among dissident Fianna Fáil TDs.

Before the programme was over, Kildare South TD Sean Power and maverick Carlow/Kilkenny TD John McGuinness had taken to the airwaves to express their surprise at Lenihan's smooth-talking stance on Cowen. McGuinness claimed that Lenihan encouraged dissent last year and encouraged rebel TDs to "look at the numbers" with a view to launching a no-confidence motion.

Confirming his candidature to the Sunday Tribune last night, Lenihan said he would hold a press conference today.

He noted there had been a number of public declarations for Micheál Martin but said the party had been "bounced into these matters in the past" and urged TDs to "sit back and reflect" rather than making instant decisions.

He added that it was important that TDs heard what the different candidates had to say and that he was "not encouraging public declarations on the day the Taoiseach had resigned as Fianna Fáil leader".

Interviewed on Newstalk radio, Micheál Martin said he "wouldn't take anything for granted and I will have to ask every single member of the parliamentary party for their support.

"This is the most important general election campaign in the history of the country. It is extremely important that we have a strong and focused debate on policy... and that is where our focus will be."