HAMPSHIRE MP Chris Huhne would not be drawn today on whether he will stand to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The Eastleigh MP, who stood unsuccessfully for the leadership after Charles Kennedy quit, emerged as one of the leading contenders to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell who dramatically stepped down last night.

Potential candidates were stopping short of putting their names forward as news of the resignation unfolded, but bookmakers installed Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg as the early front runner to take up the party reins.

Mr Huhne was today remaining tight-lipped on whether or not he will make a second attempt in 18 months for the party leadership.

Mr Huhne, who is currently the party's environment spokesman, addressed Age Concern Hampshire's annual conference at Winchester Guildhall this morning and told the Daily Echo that he had yet to decide.

"I'm talking with friends and I will see and make a decision and make a statement in due course," he said.

The former MEP, who won the Eastleigh seat by less than 600 votes in 2005, said Sir Menzies had been a "good leader" who had put the party first.

He said: "I think the decision is one that obviously Ming has taken very selflessly.

"I think that the situation had become very serious and he has decided, I think, in terms of talking it through with family and friends that it was sensible to move on and have a change of leader and I respect him for that.

"It's unfortunate that the very clear ageism in some parts of the media in particular did not give him a fair crack of the whip."

Romsey MP Sandra Gidley confirmed she would support any leadership bid made by the party's environment spokesman.

She said: "Chris is extremely bright and passionate about the party - he is very Liberal - and I think he has the complete package that the party needs to go forward.

"I certainly hope he goes for it. I know others will be encouraging him to stand - he has a lot of support within the party already. The fact that he stood last time means that he is probably off to a flying start."

She also told of her admiration for Menzies Campbell, who resigned after 18 months at the helm saying questions about leadership were getting in the way of further progress by the party.

Fellow Liberal Democrat Mark Oaten mirrored Mrs Gidley's words of praise but said he would back the party's home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg in the event of a leadership battle.

The MP for Winchester said: "Chris Huhne would make an excellent leader, but my personal choice is Nick Clegg. I'm almost certainly going to support him.

"I think he handled the Home Affairs job very well and proved himself a safe pair of hands."

Eastleigh Council Liberal Democrat leader Keith House today tipped Chris Huhne as favourite for the job as the party's leader.

He said: "I think he will be one of the front runners and I think he would stand every chance of getting it."

Councillor House believed that if Mr Huhne landed the job it would not affect his role of representing the constituency.

He said: "Chris already has a strong national profile and he has the ear of ministers. And all this must be good for Eastleigh."

Mr House believed that Mr Huhne had all the qualities to be a good leader.

Commenting on Mr Campbell's decision to resign, he said: "I think Ming did the right thing. The national media made such a fuss about his age which is disgraceful discrimination."

Test Valley Borough Councillor Alan Dowden, whose Valley Park ward falls partly within the Eastleigh parliamentary constituency, supported Mr Huhne's previous leadership bid.

"Ming Campbell is a very experienced politician who I have the greatest respect for, but I believe he would have been an excellent deputy leader to someone like Chris.

"Chris has a lot of wonderful ideas, is a great speaker, is very intelligent and I think the country would get behind him.

"I think if he were to get the job it would help the constituency.

"It would put Eastleigh on the map by giving it a much bigger profile and I have no doubt whatsoever that the town and surrounding area would benefit from having its MP in such a role."

In the short term, current deputy leader Vince Cable, will take over leadership duties while a detailed timetable for appointing Sir Menzies' permanent successor was due to be announced today.

Anyone wanting to stand for the top job must garner the support of at least ten per cent of its other MPs, and 200 ordinary members from at least 20 constituencies.

Nominations must be open for at least three weeks, with a minimum of a further five weeks for members to vote in a postal ballot.

The new leader will be announced on December 16.

The election is based on the single transferable vote system, where members list all candidates by preference, and their votes are redistributed as the least popular are eliminated round by round.

In a short statement announcing his departure last night, Sir Menzies said: "It has become clear that following the Prime Minister's decision not to hold an election, questions about leadership are getting in the way of further progress by the party.

"Accordingly I now submit my resignation as leader with immediate effect. I do not intend to hold a press conference or to make any further comment."