Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni officially announced on Wednesday that the Kadima primary will be set for March 27, just after the close of the Knesset's winter session.

Livni will face at least two challengers for the party leadership, MKs Shaul Mofaz and Avi Dichter. MK Meir Sheetrit has also indicated that he is considering a bid as party chairman and will make a decision in the coming weeks.

Recent opinion polls show that Kadima, currently the largest faction in the Knesset, would lose half of its Knesset presence if parliamentary elections were held today. The primary campaign is expected to feature mudslinging and personal attacks, which some suggest could reduce the party's standing in the eyes of the public even further.

"The citizens of Israel will know who the candidate for prime minister of the Zionist majority in the country is, because the country's citizens cannot allow themselves to leave the extremist Netanyahu government in office," Livni said at a news conference Wednesday. "Only Kadima under my leadership can again constitute an alternative to Netanyahu's government and create a government with natural partners who look out for what is good for the entire country and not just what is good for narrow sectors."

Livni said she is confident she will win. Asked if she would remain in the party if she lost the leadership race, Livni said she would not respond to such a "fictional" scenario.

Even before Livni announced the March 27 date on Wednesday, Mofaz  pledged to lead Kadima to victory in the next Knesset elections and to replace Netanyahu as prime minister.

"The beginning of this campaign is returning Kadima to its proper place in Israeli politics and immediately after that returning Israel to its proper path in its Zionist, social and moral sense," he said.

Mofaz accused Livni of demonstrating weak and "stuttering" leadership and said he would return Kadima to its "natural place as an alternative to the alliance of Feiglinites," a reference to Moshe Feiglin of the right wing of Netanyahu's Likud party.

Dichter said on Wednesday that Livni has harmed the party to such an extent over the last year that a new leader would be required to reverse the damage.

Kadima's Knesset delegation is currently splintered, with members identifying with individual candidates for the leadership of Kadima. Livni's office identified 13 MKs who reportedly said they support her leadership. They include Roni Bar-On, Yoel Hasson, Gideon Ezra and Nachman Shai.

Livni also apparently has the support of two former MKs - Tzachi Hanegbi, who heads Kadima's party affairs committee; and Haim Ramon, who chairs the Kadima council.

Kadima Knesset faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik has yet to throw her support to any candidate for the party's leadership.

Further split possible

Some observers suggest that a further split in the party could arise after the primaries are held, or perhaps even earlier.

Mofaz is thought to have the support of about 80,000 party members, greater than Livni's current level of support. But polls show that the party would garner considerably greater support in a Knesset election under Livni's leadership than under Mofaz.

Under one scenario, Kadima under Mofaz's leadership could sink to fewer than 10 seats in the Knesset from its current 28 seats. Mofaz supporters counter that the projections will change if and when he actually becomes party leader.

Meanwhile, television personality Yair Lapid has announced that he would be entering politics, apparently by forming his own party.

Lapid is expected to appeal to the same electorate as Kadima.