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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 October 2007, 11:20 GMT
Don't bore the voters
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Andrew Marr, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne
A three way debate...

Here's the thing. The Liberal Democrats have to accept that they cannot just bore the electorate into submission.

Much as the public quite like the Lib Dems, they do not care that much about us.

Ratings of 11% in the polls prove this.

Half of the people who voted for us in 2005 now say they wouldn't vote for us tomorrow. These are truly dreadful poll ratings.

Apparently, all Liberal Democrats agree that we must now take risks.

The leadership race so far...
Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne

But no Liberal Democrats can agree on any specific risk that we should take.

So, here's a challenge. Ask any Lib Dem. Tell them... take a risk... gamble.

Speak to the voters

Give them a sheet of 500 risks and they will tell you why none of these particular 500 risks are worth taking.

And that's why this leadership election could end in a bore draw.

Utterly idiotically, the Lib Dems have decided to exclude journalists from the Q&A sessions of party hustings.

This is ludicrous - indeed, verging on suicidal. And for a third party, desperate for publicity, this is a truly insane decision.

Clegg and Huhne should insist on media presence - because many members of the party will surely want to see how they cope under this sort of pressure.

The party must not begin to act as a cult.

So, where does this leave the two contenders?

Clegg ahead

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg - an air of confidence

Nick Clegg has a big head start.

He now has nearly half the Liberal Parliamentary Party behind him. He's won the early "air-war". He looks at ease and genuinely comfortable in front of the cameras.

On the BBC's Andy Marr show last Sunday, he was both confident and unflappable.

Any supposed "gaffes" on his part were correctly and expertly dealt with.

Here is a politician that it's hard NOT to trust.

That could prove to be an incredible asset.

When Nick shrugs his shoulders he actually means it - it isn't a Blair-style pose, and you can tell it isn't.

He may have limited public recognition, but every floating voter I've spoken to finds him easy to relate to.

This is the sort of man who can joust with Paxman on Newsnight as well as chat with Richard and Judy on the sofa.

In a televisual age, these are immense assets in a putative LibDem leader,

Huhne will strengthen

But, none of this should trouble Chris Huhne.

Chris is sharp enough to know that the real battle begins in late November.

He sits in a very close second place and has the competence and confidence to make up this difference when it matters.

Being a well-placed underdog will play to his strengths.

He is now actively deploying his supporters from his 2006 leadership bid in a far more effective way than he could have dreamt of last time.

Organisationally, Nick's team is running to catch up.

And any error they make on their supporters' database could land them in trouble with the Data Protection Act.

Legally, Huhne's camp can use all their campaign data from last time.

The Clegg team are already issuing "correction" messages to members and activists who should not - legally - have received emails from them. This could get very messy.

Early voting

Ballot papers will be sent out on the 21st of November.

The proper leadership race will begin on the 23rd November and effectively end on the 25th.

Most votes will have been cast by then.

Chris Huhne
Chris Huhne - a healthy regard for his opponent

The man who wins will be the person who maximises impact in that 72-hour window.

Huhne would have won last time if he hadn't been so far behind in the early vote share.

There is an uneasy truce between Nick and Chris.

They are contemporaries and colleagues, but not bosom buddies.

It's in the interest of neither for the contest to turn nasty - intriguingly, a peace-pact seems to have been arrived at a few days before Sir Ming's swift resignation.

At present, both candidates have been at pains to show how much they agree with each other.

Indeed, Nick has gone so far to say that there is virtually no difference on policy and that the campaign is entirely about effective communication to the "liberal" electorate.

Taking gambles

Andrew Neil
It was an Andrew Neil grilling for Chris Huhne

Chris can win only if he eagerly adopts the insurgent position he did last time.

He needs to come up with some policy ideas to out-trump those of his audacious bid from 2006.

But he has already shown this week that he can come across as a putative Prime Minister in a 30-minute cross-examination from Andrew Neil.

If he shows that he can combine that supreme confidence on TV with being the activists' champion, then he could well be leader come December 17th.

But back to the gamble. If the Lib Dems genuinely understand that they must take risks, then let's see the candidates do so.

In a cluttered centre ground, the choice that faces the party is to live dangerously or die slowly.

At the moment, both candidates are simply marshalling support.

But let's hope, when they have done so, that Nick and Chris opt for the dangerous option. Then we might see some real fireworks.

Mark Littlewood, Communications Director of the classical liberal think tank Progressive Vision, is a former head of media for the Liberal Democrats. This piece, part of a weekly series during the leadership election, is a personal view.

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