DUBLIN (Reuters) - The plight of a homeless man badly injured when city workers cleared the tent he was sleeping in put Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the backfoot on Thursday as housing issues dominated the start of his campaign for re-election.

A housing shortage that has sparked sharp hikes in rental costs and homelessness has been the defining domestic issue of Varadkar's near three-year premiership and is the focus of opposition criticism ahead of the Feb. 8 poll.

Dublin City Council said the man was injured on Tuesday when tents placed in precarious and dangerous locations were being removed. His case put paid to Varadkar's hopes of framing early campaigning on his diplomatic successes on Brexit and Ireland's fast growing economy.

National broadcaster RTE said the man was in a serious condition in hospital after his tent was removed by an industrial vehicle. The council said the matter was being investigated by police and had no further comment.

The story dominated newspaper front pages on Thursday. Opponents accused Varakdar of politicising the issue by calling on Dublin's lord mayor to make a statement on the issue. The lord mayor, Paul McAuliffe, is running for parliament for the rival Fianna Fail party.

The lord mayor is primarily a ceremonial role filled by an elected local councillor. Varakdar said he was not seeking to make it a party political issue.

Varadkar's Fine Gael and the fellow centre-right Fianna Fail are closely matched in opinion polls, and some distance ahead of their other rivals. This means it is increasingly likely that one of the two parties, which have broadly similar policies on the economy and Brexit, will head another minority administration.

Ireland was left with surplus housing stock after a property crash in 2008, but it has come nowhere near providing the homes needed to keep up with a rapid economic recovery, with rents in Dublin almost 40% above their pre-crisis peak.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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