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And the winner (likely) is: a woman from N. Ireland

A woman from Northern Ireland appeared poised Friday to claim the presidency of Ireland, after campaigning on a theme of "building bridges" between the island's peoples and religions.

Mary McAleese took 46 percent of the first-preference votes while Mary Banotti, a member of the European parliament, trailed with 29 percent in the exit poll for RTE, the state broadcasting ser-vice.The next-closest contender, European Parliament member Mary Banotti, trailed with 29 percent in the exit poll.

After the lowest-rated candidates are eliminated, the exit poll suggested that McAleese would finish with 59 percent and would succeed Mary Robinson.

The official count started this morning, with the final result expected late in the day. Unofficial counts by party workers, who are usually quite accurate, also indicated that McAleese had nearly 50 percent of the first-preference ballots.

Irish voters cast ballots for both first and second choices for the presidency, a largely ceremonial office whose prominence Robinson put to use on behalf of a number of causes.

Dana Rosemary Scallon, a native of Northern Ireland who now lives in Alabama, had 13 percent in the exit poll; anti-nuclear campaigner Adi Roche was at 8 percent; and Derek Nally, 61 and the only man in the race, was at 4 percent.