DUBLIN, Aug 2 (Reuters) - A gay senator who was the front-runner to win Ireland's figurehead presidency quit the race on Tuesday after admitting he used his office to plead for clemency for a friend convicted of having sex with a minor.
David Norris, a charismatic scholar of Irish writer James Joyce, surged into the lead for the largely ceremonial role with the approval of 42 percent of voters in a July poll, surprising many in predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland.
But the admission that he asked an Israeli judge to be lenient on his Israeli former partner over a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, considered legally as rape, caused several former supporters to call for him to step aside.
Norris said he had made a mistake because the letter, sent from his office in Ireland's upper house of parliament in 1997, did not show sufficient compassion for the victim of the crime.
But he said he was proud that his campaign had shown that sexuality was no longer a barrier to high political office in Ireland.
"I have... demonstrated that it is now possible for a gay person to be seen as a viable candidate for the highest office in the land," Norris told supporters outside of his Dublin home after announcing he would quit the race.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993, much later than in many other European countries, following a campaign led by Norris. Civil partnership for same-sex couples was legalised last year.
An estimated 25,000 people took part in Dublin's gay pride parade this year, which is the second largest procession in the country after the St. Patricks' Day parade.
Norris' campaign was also hurt by the republication of comments he made in 2002 defending the Ancient Greek attitude to paedophilia.
The comments did not have a significant effect on his poll ratings, but appeared to hamper efforts to secure the backing of Irish parliamentarians and county councils needed to get his name on the ballot.
The election to replace President Mary McAleese is due to take place in October.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Paul Taylor)
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