DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ The rivals to become Ireland's next prime minister, incumbent John Bruton and challenger Bertie Ahern, represent different schools of politics and style.

Bruton is a country gentleman, while Ahern, tipped as the front-runner, is a plain-spoken politician with a populist touch.

Their coalitions generally agree on the need to cut taxes, unemployment and crime, the biggest issues for voters. And so, political analysts say the vote may turn into a popularity contest _ a match Ahern has been winning.

Prime Minister Bruton, 50, who heads the conservative Fine Gael party, is regarded as exceptionally honest but socially clumsy, and is ridiculed for a braying laugh.

The millionaire son of a County Meath farmer, he was first elected to the Dail in 1969 at the age 22, but despite his experience still exhibits a certain boyish awkwardness. His close-knit family, including four kids, are a hit on the campaign trial.

Ahern, 46, a flesh-pressing Dubliner first elected 20 years ago, has risen through the ranks of Ireland's most popular but scandal-plagued party, Fianna Fail.

He earned the top job after his predecessor, Albert Reynolds, was accused of delaying the extradition of a priest convicted of sexual molestation to Northern Ireland.

Ahern's image consultants got him to jettison his floppy hairdo and ill-fitting clothes, replacing them with slick suits and silk ties. Separated from his wife, he sometimes campaigns alongside his regular companion, Cecilia Larkin, though his campaign director admits this doesn't go down too well in rural areas of this predominantly Roman Catholic country of 3.6 million people.

Bruton's three-party ``Rainbow Coalition'' _ so nicknamed because it runs from conservatives to socialists _ has trailed Ahern's coalition by 8 to 12 percentage points since the election campaign began three weeks ago.

But when the two met for their first and only live television debate on Wednesday night, which was broadcast nationally, viewers gave Bruton the nod.