Hughes attacks rival Huhne as inexperienced and little known

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He accused journalists of "talking up" Mr Huhne because he was someone they knew from his years as a business journalist on The Independent and The Guardian. Mr Hughes claimed that he and Sir Menzies Campbell were the only serious candidates in the contest to succeed Charles Kennedy because they had years of experience in Parliament, were well known to party members, and were "recognised in the street". He said: "I don't think Chris is in the same league, bluntly."

The strength of his attack suggested the Hughes camp has been alarmed by the apparent success of the newcomer, particularly his ability to attract favourable headlines. Mr Hughes's campaign was badly hit when it was shown he had not told the whole truth when he denied being gay, in an interview with The Independent. Yesterday, Mr Hughes insisted he was fighting to win - although his comments suggested his immediate concern was to secure second place. Bookmakers William Hill yesterday made Mr Huhne second favourite behind Sir Menzies with Mr Hughes an outsider.

Mr Hughes said: "The party members expected me and Menzies Campbell to contest it and they wanted to have that choice. That is the serious choice - a choice between the well known Liberal Democrats who have a track record, who are tried and tested, who have fought and won elections and campaigned up and down the country. Chris Huhne arrived in parliamentary politics eight months ago."

He also warned that if Mr Huhne were to lead the Liberal Democrats during a general election, he would have to divert a large part of the party's resources into defending his own Commons seat in Eastleigh, where his majority over the Conservatives is only 568.

While Sir Menzies avoided any direct attack on either of his rivals yesterday, he also made what was being interpreted as a sideswipe at Mr Huhne, when he attacked the "inexperience" of the Conservative leader, David Cameron. Mr Campbell added, pointedly: "Tomorrow's Britain needs leaders of experience, proven good judgement, who people know they can trust."

Mr Huhne, visiting his constituency, claimed the contest was "a pretty close race between Ming and myself now - and I think we have been closing the gap."

Mr Hughes's team also released evidence to support his claim that Mr Huhne is out of the race. The poll showed that among people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election, 31 per cent support Sir Menzies against 21 per cent for Mr Hughes and six per cent for Mr Huhne.

But the same poll showed 12 per cent thought Mr Hughes's campaign had been damaged by his admission he had not told the truth when he denied being gay.