Contenders make final bid to lead Lib Dems leadership contenders

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Indy Politics

The three contenders to become Liberal Democrat leader will make a final pitch for votes tonight as the race to succeed Charles Kennedy reaches its last lap.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting leader, Simon Hughes, the party's president, and Chris Huhne, its Treasury spokesman, will address a packed meeting in London, the final and biggest of the hustings during the campaign. Sponsored by The Independent, it will be attended by 560 readers of the newspaper as well as 600 Liberal Democrat members.

Party insiders believe voting has been less brisk than during the last leadership election in 1999, when many members voted early. Unofficial estimates suggest that one in five of those likely to vote is still undecided. Most are expected to return ballot forms by the weekend ahead ofWednesday's deadline. The result will be announced the following day.

Although Mr Huhne has progressed from outsider to bookmakers' favourite, canvass returns collated by the Campbell campaign yesterday showed Sir Menzies ahead. "We are cautiously optimistic," said one ally.

His backers believe many members who have not yet voted have decided to make him their first choice but are still deciding whether to make Mr Hughes or Mr Huhne their second preference under the single transferable vote ballot of the party's 73,000 members.

With none of the three candidates likely to win more than 50 per cent of the votes, second choices are likely to decide the issue. Under the party's system, the candidate coming third is eliminated and the second preference votes of those who supported him are redistributed.

Mr Huhne, who has fought a strong campaign after only nine months as an MP, denied yesterday that he was too inexperienced for the top job. He told Radio 4 the "recognition factor is lower" for any MP before becoming party leader, recalling that Paddy Ashdown was not well-known before he took on the post in 1988.

At a hustings meeting in Tunbridge Wells last night, Sir Menzies pledged to adopt a strong stance on civil liberties if he wins the leadership race. He said: "We stand firm against Labour plans to detain terrorist suspects without trial and we reject their ID cards scheme. If I am elected as leader, we will carry on that work."

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