Kenneth Clarke exploited his rival's discomfort yesterday over Edgar Griffin, sacked from Iain Duncan Smith's campaign team for his racist views and links to the British National Party.
Mr Clarke seized his chance to sell himself as the candidate most likely to appeal to younger voters. Speaking to Young Conservatives at the University of London, he dismissed Iain Duncan Smith's accusations of "vilification and smears" and called his opponents "a bit inexperienced".
"It shows that one or two people in his camp have slightly lost their head. Lost their cool," he said.
The row continued after Lord Taylor of Warwick described racism as a "cancer" spreading through the Tory ranks. The black Conservative peer warned Mr Duncan Smith that his appeal to the right wing of the party was a source of serious disquiet: "That right wing stance is likely to attract racist elements. I don't think Edgar Griffin is an isolated case... This cancer was allowed to spread and now they have got a problem."
Writing to The Independent yesterday, three Tory student leaders urged members to reject what they call the "outdated right wing" agenda of Kenneth Clarke's rival.
The BNP lapped up the publicity, releasing a statement damning the Tories' expulsion of Mr Griffin: "Under the Human Rights Act 2000, Mr Edgar Griffin as a British citizen has a right to privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of association. All these have been abused by the irresponsible actions of the mass media and the politically correct Conservative hierarchy."
Mr Duncan Smith took some support from an unexpected quarter when members of Bradford's Asian community today praised him for sacking Edgar Griffin.
Bradford city councillor Arshad Hussain, and businessmen Ayaz Hussain and Ajaib Hussain, were among those who signed a statement, saying: "We applaud the action taken by Iain Duncan Smith and are proud to know that for him there will be no room for racism.
"He did not turn a blind eye to it and he has won the hearts of many in the Asian community, as well as many non-Asians, for taking such bold and affirmative action. When he visited Bradford recently it was clear that he wants harmony in society and that is why we are so pleased that he has set an example at the very top. He should be proud of what he has done and we are proud to be represented by such a man."
Last night, Mr Duncan Smith urged the party to "rise above" the controversy over Mr Griffin. And the shadow defence secretary accused the Labour Party of fuelling the story. He was speaking outside his campaign HQ in Westminster as temperatures reached the mid-80s, before mingling with 60 Young Conservatives.
Responding to Mr Clarke's accusation that his camp had lost its cool, Mr Duncan Smith replied: "I think the temperature's quite hot out here.
"I don't think the BNP issue has done any damage at all, because we took swift action to deal with Mr Griffin.
"I would say to all my colleagues and friends in the party, we really have to rise above this.
"This is clearly now a Labour Party affair... they want this to become a huge issue... They want the Conservative Party to have a go at each other in this leadership election, and I am simply not going to oblige them.
"At the end of this, I want to unite the Conservative Party and, if Ken wins, exactly the same. The message is Conservatives unite – and go on to win the next election."