In Britain's second prime minister's debate, the punches come faster

By Dan Balz
Friday, April 23, 2010

It took the British politicians only a week to adapt fully to American-style candidate debates. If their first encounter a week ago was relatively polite and gentle, their second was marked by sharper exchanges and a sense of urgency on the part of the two major-party leaders, whose hopes for winning a majority of seats in the next Parliament have been dramatically diminished by the emergence of Nicholas Clegg.

Clegg, the upstart leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, was a man in the middle on Thursday, positioned on stage between Gordon Brown, the prime minister and leader of the Labor Party, and David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party. And for 90 minutes Clegg took criticism from his left and right. He was described as a threat to national security, as too pro-European and too anti-American, and as too open to immigrants.

But in a country where disgust with politicians is as deep as it is in the United States, Clegg stood his ground with an appeal to the British to vote for a break from the past -- 13 years of Labor governments and nearly a century in which the Conservatives dominated politics. "Don't let anyone tell you this time it can't be different," he said. "It can."

Clegg was the overwhelming winner of the first debate, and his party was rewarded with a remarkable surge in the polls. That reality brought a different dynamic to the second debate. Cameron, who saw Clegg snatch the issue of change away from him in the first debate, fired back sharply on Thursday. He warned of chaos if there is a hung Parliament and argued that only his party can produce "a clean break" from 13 years of Labor Party rule.

Cameron is likely to emerge from the second debate with greater confidence, and Brown with even more determination. But Clegg is not going away. A British campaign that turned unexpectedly lively just a week ago remains just as unpredictable today and is heading toward an uncertain finish in two weeks.

A full version of this column is online.

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