The new frontrunner, Simon Hughes, stressed his commitment to raising taxes to reduce unfairness, while second favourite, Sir Menzies Campbell, stressed his long personal commitment to "liberation, freedom and justice". Outsider Chris Huhne, meanwhile, argued for steep hikes in polluter taxes at the first hustings, in the London School of Economics.
But it was Mark Oaten who made arguably the greatest impact with an appeal to rank-and-file party members dismayed at the treatment of Mr Kennedy. The home affairs spokesman said MPs had "let down" ordinary Liberal Democrats and should apologise for their show of disunity. Another senior Lib Dem MP, Mike Hancock, said that grassroots anger was bound to be a "massive factor" in the ballot. The MP for Portsmouth South said he was backing Mr Hughes, whom he described as being "outside" the plot to bring Mr Kennedy down.
"Some of the candidates have still got questions to answer," he said. In a dig at Sir Menzies, who is supported by the MPs most vocal in demanding their former leader's resignation, he added: "I wouldn't want to go into this election supported by a long list of the people who gave Charles the hardest time at the end."
Mr Kennedy has stayed clear of the race, keeping away from Westminster last week when Sir Menzies, a barrister, stumbled badly at Prime Minister's Questions, his first as acting leader.
Ballot papers are to be sent out to 73,000 members for the all-postal election at the beginning of February, with the new leader named on 2 March.
* Simon Hughes has emerged as odds-on favourite in the race to lead the Lib Dems. William Hill put him at 5/6 to win, with Sir Menzies Campbell offered at 2/1, Chris Huhne at 6/1 and Mark Oaten at 7/1.Reuse content