The Take

Howard Dean offers advice to U.K. Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; 5:15 PM

British politics has been turned upside down by the performance last week of Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg in a televised debate. But Howard Dean wasn't surprised. He said he saw it coming long ago.

"I told him a year ago he could be prime minister," Dean said Monday.

Clegg was the clear winner in last week's debate -- the first-ever American-style debate in British political history -- with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labor Party and Conservative Party leader David Cameron. Clegg's approval ratings have soared, and the post-debate-bounce for his party has dramatically altered the dynamic of the British campaign.

Dean, the former presidential candidate, Vermont governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he met Clegg in early 2009 through his former campaign manager Rick Ridder, a Colorado-based consultant. He has offered broad strategic advice on everything from the demographics of the Liberal Democratic Party -- short on working-class citizens and people of color, Dean said -- to what Clegg should expect in this week's debate. Dean said he has not been paid for his advice other than expenses to attend a Liberal Democrat meeting.

Brown and Cameron have been so focused on one another, Dean said, that he felt confident that the British debates would give Clegg a chance to come up the middle.

"I thought both Cameron and Brown were not popular, and Clegg is a very attractive candidate," Dean said. "He's young, he's smart, he's thoughtful."

A British blog said that, since the debate, Dean has advised Clegg, "Don't get cocky" over his newfound visibility. Dean denied the report, saying that while he has been in contact with the Lib Dem campaign via e-mail since the debate, "I had much more specific advice." He declined to share the specifics.

He did agree with others that Thursday's nationally televised debate -- the second of three -- will be critical for Clegg because he will have to withstand expected attacks from Brown and Cameron. And while the British system makes it unlikely Clegg's party will emerge with the most seats in the next Parliament in the May 6 election, Dean remains bullish about Clegg's potential to become prime minister.

"He's a real threat right now," Dean said. "If he gets through this debate and stands up to the attacks . . . and can show he can be prime minister, then I think he will be."

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