Michael Howard has said he is "very, very surprised" to find himself in pole position for Tory leader and - quoting Margaret Thatcher - added: "It's a funny old world".
Mr Howard is so far unopposed to be the next Tory leader
Mr Howard, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, also acknowledged that he had not been popular when he was home secretary under John Major.
He said he recognised that his party would have to demonstrate that it was "relevant to the lives of everybody in this country".
And he indicated his commitment to reform of public services, denouncing the government's policy of creating foundation hospitals as a "pale pink" version of what the Tories would do.
Mr Howard - who so far is the only candidate to replace Iain Duncan Smith, ousted in a confidence vote last Wednesday - stressed the need for politicians to reconnect with voters.
Nominations now open for leadership race
6 November: Nominations close
11 November: First leadership ballot of MPs
Iain Duncan Smith remains caretaker leader until successor chosen
And he added: "I am aware that I was not a popular home secretary and I have thought a lot about that.
"One of the conclusions I have reached is that it is not enough just to win
"That doesn't necessarily mean you have won hearts and minds. You have got to
take people with you, you have got to explain what you are doing and try to get
people behind you and build a consensus so that you can move forward and do
things which people will respond to."
Earlier Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott pledged to "remind" Mr Howard of his record when in government.
"It was very unpopular at the time - his record is a bad one, his personality is not so great," he said.
Mr Prescott also expressed doubt Mr Howard - previously identified with the right of his party - could lead it from the centre, as he promised on Thursday.
"He is now going to lead from the centre? We must wait and see," Mr Prescott said on the Today programme.
On Sunday Mr Howard said his party would cut taxes if it returned to government.
Advice for Howard
He argued that lower taxes created a stronger economy and a stronger society, because people "do more for each other and their communities" when they pay less.
Plenty of Tory MP were available at the weekend to offer Mr Howard advice.
Conservative MP John Bercow - firmly identified with the reforming wing of the Tories - warned: "The priority for Tories are public service policies which must come before
any obsession with tax cuts."
Fellow Tory and old adversary of Mr Howard, Ann Widdecombe, also chose to give Mr Howard some advice.
She said he would need to "broaden" the agenda and vision he had when, as home secretary, he took the "took the criminal justice system from left to right almost single handedly".
Tough measures needed to be coupled with "real efforts to make communities safer and pleasanter".
The former Home Office minister once famously said her former boss had "something of the night" about him as he battled for the leadership in 1997.
Now she says he will have to learn to "listen and win over".
"It is vital that he surrounds himself with loyal friends who are more than capable of standing up to his juggernaut approach," she wrote in the Independent on Sunday.
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said his selection as leader would be a "classic example of back to the future" by the Tories.
He added that Conservatives' policies "simply don't add up".
Mr Howard has said that if he remains the only candidate he will seek the endorsement of the whole party in a vote of grass roots members.