Straw poll puts Campbell ahead in leadership contest

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Sir Menzies Campbell is the clear front-runner in the Liberal Democrat leadership race, according to a new straw poll conducted by The Independent. Sir Menzies, the party's acting leader, won the backing of 51 of 100 Liberal Democrat members surveyed on Thursday night at the final hustings meeting of the election. Simon Hughes, the party's president, was in second place with 31 votes and Chris Huhne, its Treasury spokesman, third with 18 votes.

The meeting, hosted by The Independent, was held in London, and the 1,200-strong audience may have included a disproportionate number of supporters of Mr Hughes, who is the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey.

Mr Hughes also scored well when members were asked for their second preferences, which will decide the election if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preference votes. A total of 48 named Mr Hughes as their second choice, with 28 opting for Sir Menzies and 24 for Mr Huhne, the bookmakers' favourite.

At the packed meeting, the three men set out their stalls in a final attempt to win over members still to cast their votes before next Wednesday's deadline. The result will be announced the following day.

Sir Menzies, 64, who is backed by more than half of the party's 63 MPs, positioned himself as the man to bring on the Liberal Democrats' "brightest and best generation" of MPs for a long time so the party could move from "mere parliamentary survival to influence and political power". He urged last-minute voters to ignore concerns about his age. "The leading candidate to have the Republican nomination for the next presidential election in the US is Senator John McCain, who as we speak is age 69," he noted. "If you can run the US at age 69 then I think you can run the Liberal Democrats at age 64."

Mr Hughes appealed to party traditionalists by promising to be a leader of "reason and principle". He said: "Our role will not be to drive around in ministerial limos, but to use our power and influence for policies and laws that bring about a truly liberal, enlightened and decentralised Britain."

Mr Hughes also took a sideswipe at Mr Huhne, urging people not to believe the media hype about his rival's campaign. He said: "I just warn the commentators not to overrate some campaigns of some colleagues. It is the voters who will decide."

Insisting that he could still win the contest despite being accused of misleading people about his sexuality, Mr Hughes said: "There were a couple of difficult days, a couple of difficult weeks for the party but, just as the party has recovered, so I believe my campaign is as strong as ever and growing."

Mr Huhne insisted he supported "fair taxes, green taxes, but not higher taxes". He added: "We have the principles and ideas and passion and energy and talent to put Liberal Democratic principles into power." The contest has been largely good-natured, but there are signs that it is becoming increasingly personal. On GMTV's Sunday programme tomorrow, Sir Menzies will make a thinly veiled attack on Mr Huhne, who promised to support him before deciding to run for the leadership.

Describing the former journalist as "the darling of the media", Sir Menzies will say: "Mr Huhne did say he would support me, then he came to me to say he wished to run himself. That's a matter for his own judgment and of course that's a matter for his own credibility."

Mr Huhne won the backing of a previously undecided MP, Greg Mulholland, who said: "Chris has conducted a very energetic campaign. I feel that he has really connected with people up and down the country and has engaged with Liberal Democrat members and has also enticed potential supporters."

Mr Hughes denied that he would deter voters who had switched to the Liberal Democrats from the Tories. He told BBC Radio 4 he had grown up in "traditionally Conservative-voting communities" and had fought for fairness in areas where Labour had failed.

He said: "It would be a leadership that wouldn't be Westminster-based. It would be a leadership with passion, reaching out to the people who've never voted for us, but I promise you that it would be a leadership that would unite the party."