A third of activists remain undecided

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Sir Menzies Campbell is emerging as the front-runner among Liberal Democrat party activists.

More than 40 per cent of the senior local party members contacted by The Independent backed Sir Menzies for the leadership. But more than a third were undecided, suggesting there remains much to play for in a seven-week contest where the battle lines are yet to be drawn.

The straw poll of 104 local councillors and parliamentary candidates from across the country found that 45 expressed backing for Sir Menzies, 13 for Simon Hughes and 10 for Mark Oaten. Thirty-four were undecided, while two backed other MPs for leader.

The survey suggests that Mr Hughes and Mr Oaten will have to overcome an early surge of support for Sir Menzies, who was the first candidate to declare his leadership ambitions after Charles Kennedy resigned. Many activists expressed anger at the way Mr Kennedy was ousted, suggesting that any candidate perceived as a political assassin could pay a price.

The survey will hearten allies of Sir Menzies, but the acting leader is likely to face strong opposition if the party president, Simon Hughes, confirms tomorrow that he will enter the race. Mr Hughes is popular with activists and has a reputation as an enthusiastic campaigner.

Mark Oaten, the party's home affairs spokesman, was trailing third. However, his support could grow after he formally threw his hat into the ring yesterday claiming to have been contacted by thousands of grassroots members.

Clive Skelton, a Sheffield councillor said: "Campbell should be the new leader... he is experienced and I have a lot of respect for him." Mark Percy, a Southwark councillor, countered: "We need someone who can offer vision for the future, energetic, youthful leadership."

Research by Simon Willis, Zoe Dimrtriou and Tom Harper