DUBLIN - Ireland's combative deputy prime minister and finance minister, Brian Cowen, is the overwhelming favorite to replace the charming Bertie Ahern as Ireland's leader next month. The country faces a huge change in style if not substance.
While the nation largely calls Ahern by his first name, friend and foe alike have christened Cowen "Biffo" - a sobriquet that the sharp-witted Cowen embraced, even though it stands for "Big ignorant [expletive] from Offaly."
Cowen, 48, has been a parliament member representing his native Offaly, an overwhelmingly rural county in the Irish midlands, for half his life. He won a 1984 by-election caused by the death of his predecessor, his father.
He has amassed a breadth of government experience despite his relative youth, leading six government departments since 1992. He displayed a fierce loyalty to Ahern while closely aligning himself with the premier's consensus-building policies of the past decade.
While Ahern is infamous for speaking with baffling imprecision, Cowen often favors brusque, brutal efficiency.
He has cultivated a debating style akin to a bull in a china shop, lashing out verbally at anyone who dares criticize the government - a skill put on vibrant display during last year's election campaign, when he skewered Ahern's critics.
Friends say Cowen is good fun privately, and quick with a joke or a song, but his public demeanor usually ranges from sour to downright grumpy.
As controller of Ireland's purse strings since 2004, he appears the best-placed candidate to guide the country through its increasingly difficult economic climate.
Hours after Ahern announced his resignation effective May 6, Cowen's department revealed the latest figures of government red ink, a rapid change from the past decade of surpluses.
"It is crucial that the agreed budget spending limits are adhered to this year," said Cowen, who has overseen the biggest spending hikes in Irish history.