Lib Dem contest is wide open, Hughes and Huhne insist

As ballot papers were sent out to the party's 73,000 members, the three candidates set out their agendas in Cardiff last night at the second regional debate of the campaign.

Voting ends on 1 March with the result announced the next day. Mr Huhne, who began the election as an outsider, trumpeted a survey of 50 former Liberal Democrats for More4 News, saying he had the momentum to win the race. The survey showed that 22 backed Sir Menzies, 17 Mr Huhne, and seven Mr Hughes with four undecided.

In Cardiff, Mr Huhne opened a new front in his campaign by setting out an eight-point plan to sweep away the "authoritarian" laws introduced by Labour to curb people's civil liberties - including the use of anti-terrorist laws to harass demonstrators and the ban on protests near Parliament.

In a sideswipe at 64-year-old Sir Menzies, Mr Hughes urged party members to reject a "steady as she goes" leader and said that he was the only man with the energy to take on Labour and the Tories.

"The important thing now is to have a leader who can inspire and motivate the party and I believe I can do that better than the others," he said.

Sir Menzies' team, which is quietly confident, said he had the declared support of 30 MPs, more than his two rivals, who have 11 each. Thirty-five Liberal Democrat peers back Sir Menzies, according to his aides.

In his speech to the Cardiff hustings, Sir Menzies denied he was too old for the job. He told party members: "There are no short cuts to success. So I will use this - my experience, my authority, my energy - to work with you, campaign alongside you as part of a formidable team." He hit back at criticism by his two rivals of his stance on Iraq as the party's foreign affairs spokesman and dismissed their calls for British troops to be withdrawn by the end of this year. He said: "Make no mistake - I want to bring our troops home from Iraq as soon as possible. But I am clear that that process should be driven by events on the ground in Iraq, not by arbitrary deadlines marked on a calendar in London."

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