LONDON, April 30 -- After a punishing day on the campaign trail, Tony Blair faced one last challenge Thursday night: a live BBC television studio audience eager for combat.
The British prime minister, his forehead bathed in perspiration, launched into his usual defense for joining the United States in invading Iraq, insisting he had taken a hard decision to rid the world of an evil dictator and a potential threat. But the audience was having none of it.
Prime Minister Tony Blair greets supporters on the campaign trail at Lord Street Primary School in northwest England. The leader has faced scathing criticism from British voters, with the election less than a week away.
"It was a political decision to support your best mate, George Bush," one woman said. Another added, "If you weren't fraudulent, you were grossly negligent and for that you should be resigning anyway." And a man chimed in: "You lied to the country and that's why we can't support you."
Once, he was the toast of Britain, a young political leader with a mission and a message. Now, in what he says is the last campaign of his political career, Blair is the target. As a May 5 election approaches, his enemies are trying to make the vote a referendum on his character and what they call a parade of lies about Iraq.
Though wounded, Blair remains a formidable candidate and a gifted, even eager political warrior. His campaign has become a personal crusade to convince voters that, whatever they think of the war, he is a strong leader with a domestic program that is detailed, forward-looking and humane. The polls are projecting success -- which would give him a third term in office -- but with a smaller majority in Parliament.
Blair's dry, self-deprecating sense of humor, which is one of his original assets, remains intact. He looked exhausted Thursday night but perked up when one man in the audience told him, "I think you're very lucky that we have a weak opposition."
"I take it that's not a compliment," replied the prime minister, a retort that won some grudging laughter from the audience.
He has needed a thick skin in a campaign that has been personal like few others in recent British history. His chief opponent, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, calls him a barefaced liar and invites voters to "wipe the smirk off Mr. Blair's face." His enemies twist his name into "B Liar."
Opinion columns in many newspapers -- including his natural ideological home, the left-of-center Guardian -- have branded him a war criminal. When possible, his party surrounds him on the stump with other Labor leaders, most particularly Gordon Brown, the treasury secretary who is Blair's all-but-inevitable successor as prime minister. Much of the party's literature doesn't mention Blair at all.
More than half of those surveyed believe Blair cannot be trusted, an all-time high for him. Still, he is seen by a 2-to-1 ratio over Howard and the third-party candidate, Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats, as the leader who would make the best prime minister.
John Mann, a longtime party activist from Wellingborough, a rural and suburban parliamentary district about 70 miles northwest of London, recalls the first time Blair came to speak to Laborites there as a young member of Parliament in 1992. "He was so charismatic -- he had the aura of a young John F. Kennedy," Mann said. "At the end of the meeting, I said, 'We've listened this evening to a future prime minister.' "
In ensuing years, Blair retooled the Labor Party, steered it to the political center and in 1997 brought it to power after 18 years out of office. The party's campaign manifesto for that vote splashed his unlined, youthful features in full color on its cover, his blue eyes gleaming with idealism, alongside the slogan: "Because Britain deserves better." He was returned to office with another landslide win in 2001.
Today, Mann says the Iraq war has shattered his confidence in Blair. "The most important thing a prime minister can do is take us to war, and that was done under a false prospectus," he said, referring to discredited claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. "I'd like to move on, but the awful truth is Iraq is still in a mess. And so we can't move on."
Blair, who turns 52 the day after the election, has said he wants a third term so that he can finish reforming public services such as Britain's state-run national health and school systems. "He wants to complete the new Labor project of transforming Britain into a modern social democracy," said David Milliband, a Labor member of Parliament who is one of Blair's closest policy advisers.