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David Cameron rolled into the Eastleigh by-election today.
Mr Cameron, fresh off the plane from a trade visit to India, was with Tory candidate Maria Hutchings when they visited Prysmian Cables & Systems in the Hampshire constituency and he opened a new £2 million high voltage lab.
Local MP George Hollingbery took her place in a hustings event amid Liberal Democrat accusations that Tory party bosses are hiding her away because of off-message outbursts on abortion, gay marriage and Europe.
Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron said:
''The Tory candidate is clearly running scared. She's refusing to show up to a hustings with the people she says she wants to represent, proving her claims to stay in touch are empty and worthless.
''It is clear that the Tory candidate is so at odds with her own party leader, they are resorting to a desperate game of hide and seek.
''You have to ask why Cameron's Conservative machine keeps trying to hide her away.
"This is a candidate who says on her leaflets that she puts local people before political ambition, yet the moment she gets to share the spotlight with her party leader all that is forgotten.''
Conservative Party sources said the clash was unavoidable and it would have looked strange if the Prime Minister had turned up at the factory without his candidate.
But privately there are concerns that Mrs Hutchings is ''a loose cannon''.
Publicly, Mr Cameron was right behind his candidate today telling workers at the factory during a Cameron Direct question-and-answer session: ''She will be an absolutely first class MP for Eastleigh. She is a local mother of four, she speaks plainly and tells it how it is and God knows we need that in Westminster.''
A week from polling day in the by-election triggered by disgraced Chris Huhne's resignation, the Prime Minister took questions from an audience of workers on topics such as Europe, VAT, immigration and benefits.
On the topic of handouts Mr Cameron shared the frustration of one man who complained that alcoholics get more money and if they did not they would not be alcoholics.
Mr Cameron joked:
''I think I have found my next welfare minister here.
''It drives people mad to know that they are working hard, paying their taxes and yet they can see someone on the same street as them swinging the lead,'' he said.
He explained that the Government is now ensuring that work will always pay more than benefits.
The by-election contest, pitting the Tory and Lib Dem coalition partners against each other, is seen as a key test for Mr Cameron in the kind of seat his party needs to win if he is to get an outright majority in the next general election.
Both parties have thrown themselves into the contest, with a string of ministers and high-profile figures filing down to Eastleigh to campaign, but there have been signs that the Lib Dems - who have a strong council presence in the area - have mobilised most effectively so far.
It is believed they have a strong lead in postal votes giving the Tories a mountain to climb on election day.
Meanwhile, Labour candidate John O'Farrell was campaigning with shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg at a day nursery in Eastleigh.
The by-election on February 28 was called after Huhne resigned upon admitting he perverted the course of justice. Huhne - who faces prison when he is sentenced - held the seat for the Lib Dems at the 2010 general election with a relatively small majority of 3,864.