Smouldering rather than blazing, the Liberal Democrat leadership election has produced little heat. It is telling that a man who is not standing, the party's interim leader Vincent Cable, has made more noise than either of the candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. Their head-to-head encounter on Thursday's Question Time produced few memorable moments. Mr Cable, however, put in another strong parliamentary performance this week, showing the sort of confident intellectual independence that Sir Menzies Campbell never managed.

If his name was on the ballot paper, he might even win. Since it is not, members will choose between two men, similar in background but in instinct quite different, when voting begins next week. The choice matters - not just for the future of Britain's third party, but also for the values that it represents. When Liberal Democrats are challenged to explain why their party exists they often struggle for an answer. But there should be neither confusion nor shame in supporting humane liberal internationalism against intolerance or authoritarianism. Liberal Democrats are not alone in defending justice and liberty, but the party's decline, if sustained, would harm those causes. "The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty," said Keynes. The great argument for the Liberal Democrats is that they, alone of the parties, are clear that they stand for all three.

The new leader's task is to create a hungrier, raucous force that can grow. He will need to escape the comfortable moderation that has at times left the party sounding like a mild, middle-class moan - intelligent, informed but a bit insipid. The leadership contest, conducted in private meetings away from the media, is hardly a test for what is to come. But it has exposed differences. Mr Huhne has pointed, with the telling aggression of the underdog, to what he says are his opponent's weaknesses. Some Clegg supporters accuse Mr Huhne of souring the debate, but the truth is he has usefully sharpened it and he is right: the party faces a personal choice. Mr Huhne has charged his opponent with hiding his private support for education vouchers, and even the dismantling of the NHS. Mr Clegg denies this - but he has not explained how his plans for schools will be financed. The Clegg campaign made a strong start with an intelligent speech that recognised the party's weaknesses; since then it has lacked pace. This has allowed Mr Huhne, with the experience of someone running for a second time, to set the pace - issuing a detailed manifesto. But this advantage has come at the cost of good relations and perhaps the sort of open thinking that allowed David Cameron to make such a success of his leadership campaign. The race has been turned into a rather small-minded affair, with each candidate wary of allowing any sign of ideological difference.

This is a pity because both candidates are clever and dynamic. Experienced in business and in journalism (including for this paper), Mr Huhne understands economics, as few politicians do. He has a strong record shaping party thinking and an ambitious grasp of its potential. But Mr Clegg is the more likely of the pair to bring this potential to fruition. He is no Conservative in disguise but a convinced Liberal, a political shade that may trouble some social democrats but which sits at the heart of the party's identity. He is articulate, energetic and capable of presenting the Liberal Democrat case in a way that neither of its last two leaders were able to manage. He also has the support of the majority of his parliamentary colleagues - including those, such as Steve Webb, who are to his ideological left. He can speak with a fluent, engaging intelligence. There is reason to hope that under Mr Clegg's leadership the party would find a new vibrancy, challenging Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown. If this newspaper was to cast a vote, it would be for him.

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