Ashdown Resigns: The Contenders for the Crown

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Charles Kennedy, 39

Emerging as front-runner. Though he has been loyal to Mr Ashdown, made clear in summer he would throw his hat in the ring. Regarded as media- friendly, and assured TV performer. MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye since 1983 until last year, when seat was changed to include Inverness, he was one of the young stars of the SDP but broke with David Owen when the merger with the Liberals took place.

Simon Hughes, 47

Will be rebels' choice, as most outspoken critic of Mr Ashdown's closer Labour links. A health spokesman, has attacked government handling of NHS, refusing to be gagged by `constructive opposition' policy. Former Liberal, he won Bermondsey when it was Labour rotten borough but could be regarded as too much of an urban, radical, environmentalist for mainstream of the party in the country.

Menzies Campbell, 58

Seen as the most obvious continuity candidate, who could lose out because of his age if the party opts for a leader from the same generation as William Hague and Tony Blair. Mr Campbell, the defence and foreign affairs spokesman, shares Mr Ashdown's world view, and has been a confidant on closer links with the Government. He has held the Fife North East seat since 1987.

Don Foster, 51.

He has built up a parliamentary profile as a sharp debater and is well- liked by Tories and Labour MPs.

However, he would have to rebuild his rapport with party activists who dealt him an embarrassing blow at last year's conference. They overwhelmingly rejected plans to reduce local authorities' power over schools and create "neighbourhood trusts".

Nick Harvey, 37

Would be well-placed to win over votes if he decided to stand for the leadership election. He is deeply rooted in the party's machinery as its campaign manager. However, his role as a backroom dealer has the disadvantage that, while he is used to dealing with journalists, he has a low public profile and seldom speaks during parliamentary debates.