By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; A08
LONDON -- When the cameras start rolling on a Manchester stage Thursday night, the British will enter a new political era: the age of the U.S.-style televised debate.
For the first time in British history, the candidates will confront one another on prime-time television. Observers are calling it a pivotal change to a storied political process, one that is altering the nature of the most hotly contested prime minister's race in generations.
The debates are expected to boost the importance of charisma -- a political ingredient more associated here with U.S. presidents -- giving underdogs a chance to shine, and front-runners a chance to blow it, all on live TV. The British media are positioning the three debates as a cliffhanger: Will the May 6 elections be decided by a Kennedy vs. Nixon moment?
The introduction of televised debates marks another step in what many here see as a long-evolving Americanization of British politics, leading some to pine for duller days. Traditionally, campaigns focused on policy and a strong cabinet almost as much as on the party's would-be candidate for prime minister. Much of that changed with the rise of Tony Blair, who hired former president Bill Clinton's gurus Mark Penn and Stanley Greenberg and adopted a landmark shift in political style that seemed, at least to the British, exceedingly American.
But observers say this year's race is in a league of its own in mirroring U.S. campaigns. With only three weeks to go before election day, parallels to the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign -- including the importation of top Obama advisers, heavy deployment of grass-roots Internet campaigning and an increasing focus on politicians' wives -- are generating a national discussion over gloss and media shine vs. policy and substance.
Yet to some, the similarities simply represent the globalization of successful political campaigns, an embrace of the social networking sites and personal star power that helped make the Obama campaign a modern prototype.
"The British say they don't want it, that they don't want all this personalization of politics like you have in the States. But it is clear they are responding to it, and the politicians are simply doing what works," said Tony Travers, a political expert at the London School of Economics.
In a nation where the hopefuls' spouses have tended to stay behind the scenes, the wives of Conservative front-runner David Cameron and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Labor Party incumbent, are basking in an unprecedented media spotlight more akin to U.S. campaigns. They have taken far more active rolls than their predecessors on British campaign trails, with Sarah Brown, a former public relations executive, alone courting 1.1 million campaign followers on Twitter.
"I think they saw what Obama did, and the parties are trying to use that," said Stephen Cooke, 43, an IT salesman in London who admittedly likes the "more American" campaign. Of the leaders' wives taking a more prominent role, and their continuing comparisons to Michelle Obama, he said, "It's like having a first lady! Yes, why not?"
More than ever before, British campaigners are also going after the "mum" vote, tapping into Web sites like Mumsnet and Netmums that offer what observers describe as the local equivalent of the U.S. soccer moms who so influenced the outcomes of recent American presidential races. Campaign messages are pithy and simple. David Cameron -- striving to break Labor's 13-year grip on power -- has adopted a slogan that should sound familiar to Obama supporters: "Vote for Change."
For his part, Brown, accused of being unapproachable, reached out to audiences in an emotive TV interview that was highly unusual in a nation famous for keeping a stiff upper lip. He offered an intimate description of his feelings about the death of his infant daughter, part of a trend toward personal political interviews in Britain that the Financial Times recently dismissed as "more suited to Oprah Winfrey than the BBC's normal political line-up."
To be sure, some here are complaining about what they say is a saccharine dose of touchy-feely Americanism that has no place in British politics.
But British politicians have embraced U.S. tactics for one simple reason: They appear to be what British voters want. Brown, for instance, got a strong boost after his emotional outreach on TV, though he still trails Cameron in the polls.
In the British system, voters do not directly elect the prime minister. Rather, they vote for parliamentary candidates in local races, with the party winning a majority of seats earning the right to form a government.
But nowhere is the changing emphasis toward individual candidates, as opposed to their parties, more straightforward than in the new debates. Gladiatorial verbal sparring is nothing new to British politics -- the prime minister and his opponents lock intellects in Prime Minister's Questions every Wednesday. But British candidates have never done a series of U.S.-style stand-up debates on prime-time television.
Analysts say it could be Nicholas Clegg -- head of the Liberal Democrats and currently running in third place -- who will benefit most from the debates. With a more liberal agenda than that of Brown's Labor Party but less name recognition, Clegg may win a certain stature by merely standing alongside the two front-runners and speaking his piece.
"Certainly, the debates could be the big game-changer, and that is where the U.S. parallels are most relevant," said Peter Riddell, political columnist for the newspaper the Times of London and author of several books on British politics. "Will anyone make a gaffe? Will one seize the momentum right before the elections? It is going to be fascinating to watch."
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.