Irish await result of offbeat presidential poll
* Reality TV star and left-leaning poet favourites
* Polls put ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness third
* First results expected by Friday afternoon
By Conor Humphries
DUBLIN, Oct 28 (Reuters) - Irish voters waited on Friday for the results of an election that could hand the presidency to a reality TV star, a left-wing poet or a former IRA commander, but is almost certain to embarrass the party of Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Weeks of mud-slinging between the seven candidates vying for the largely ceremonial role have distracted Ireland from its financial crisis.
But they have also raised serious questions about the role in Irish politics of Sinn Fein, one-time allies of the Irish Republican Army guerrillas, and about the depth of support for Fine Gael, which swept to power in February.
Analysts said the outcome of Thursday's election was too close to call between independent candidate Sean Gallagher, a businessman who shot to fame through reality television, and poet and former culture minister Michael D. Higgins, a member of the Labour Party, the junior coalition partner.
The count begins on Friday, with initial results expected in the afternoon, although the final result may not be published until Saturday.
"It was the 'Wacky Races', but it took people's minds off how bad everything is," said Monica, a 46-year-old writer, after casting her ballot.
"McGuinness running opened the closet. It forced a lot of issues into the open and showed a lot of people hadn't moved on."
McGuinness, once a leading figure in the IRA's fight against British rule in Northern Ireland, was third in the final opinion poll, taken late last week, and analysts said he was probably too far behind to win.
His candidacy shook up an initially dull race, prompting some government ministers to paint him as a villain and splitting voters.
"We don't need a terrorist as president," said Anne Wade, a 29-year-old library assistant, after voting for gay-rights activist David Norris. "It would make Ireland look very bad."
Once the political wing of the now-defunct IRA, Sinn Fein has always campaigned for a united Ireland but so far has been able to make major political inroads only in Northern Ireland.
Buoyed by public anger over an economic crisis that led to an EU/IMF bailout of Ireland late last year, Sinn Fein tripled its score to a record 14 of parliament's 166 seats in February.
The biggest loser from the presidential election appears to be governing party Fine Gael, which swept to power with 36 percent of the vote in February on a wave of anger at rival Fianna Fail's handling of the economy. After a weak campaign, its candidate secured just 6 percent in the final opinion poll.
Irish presidential elections are notoriously grubby affairs because of the focus on personality over policy.
This race has been no different, with the latest round of controversy hitting the chances of front-runner Gallagher.
Gallagher was 15 points ahead in the final opinion poll, but revelations over his ties to Fianna Fail subsequently prompted bookmakers to make Higgins the new favourite.
Votes are also being counted on Friday in a by-election that is expected to deprive Fianna Fail of its last member of parliament in the capital.
Referendums on whether to allow the government to cut the pay of judges and to boost the power of parliamentary committees will also be decided. (Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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