By Anthony Faiola
Friday, April 23, 2010; A08
LONDON -- Candidates from Britain's two traditional parties sought to recapture the momentum from a surging challenger Thursday night, accusing him of being "anti-American" and "a risk" to national security in the second of three historic prime-time debates.
The U.S.-style television debates -- introduced this year in Britain -- have upended the closest prime minister's race in decades, giving a sudden boost to Nicholas Clegg of the perennially third-place Liberal Democrats. But Clegg was less dominant Thursday night in the western port city of Bristol, as the longtime front-runner David Cameron of the Conservative Party exuded a passion noticeably absent in the first debate.
Snap polls showed Clegg running away with last week's debate, but all three men scored close in the second round. Different polls each declared Clegg and Cameron the winner. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labor Party also improved on last week's numbers but at times seemed brusque and bulldozing. With the race shaping up as a showdown between Cameron and Clegg, Brown appeared to struggle to score points. Aware of his personal unpopularity, he at one point begged voters to vote for his Labor Party whether they liked him "or not."
Although the debate was straight out of American political playbooks, it also showcased British frankness at its best. The contest centered largely on foreign policy, with differences engagingly stated and laced with spicy one-liners. Discussing the need for Britain to join closer with Europe, Clegg said, "To quote a phrase, size does matter."
The debates appear set to shape the outcome of the May 6 vote more than anyone here ever imagined, analysts say.
"We honestly thought the debates would be static, that people wouldn't think them the least bit interesting," said Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics. "But now, we see them in action, interacting like this, and this has shown itself to be a form of political combat that is interestingly revealing, from their smiles to the way they stand."
And their answers, too.
In perhaps the liveliest exchange, over Britain's future role in Europe, the three men offered starkly different visions. Cameron flashed his distrust of the Continent and the European Union bureaucracy based in Brussels, saying, "We have let too many powers go from Westminster to Brussels . . . we should take some of those powers back."
Both Brown and Cameron assailed Clegg as reckless for seeking to mothball Britain's Trident sea-based nuclear deterrent. Brown went as far as calling Clegg "anti-American" for his recent comments describing Britain's "special relationship" with the United States as a case of "slavish" devotion.
Clegg offered a harsh critique of the Iraq war, suggesting that Britain's joint mission with the United States had made it complicit in torture. But he rebutted the notion that he was anti-American, arguing that strong ties with Washington and an independent Britain were not mutually exclusive.
After last week's debate, Clegg jumped more than 10 percentage points in opinion polls, taking the lead in at least two published Tuesday. Another released Thursday, however, put Cameron once again in pole position.
Clegg is now feeling the heat, with Brown and Cameron at times going after him tag-team-style in the debates. In addition, the conservative press Thursday morning claimed that Clegg had compared Britain to Nazi Germany, and it raised questions about political donations.
Clegg dismissed the suggestions as part of a smear campaign, closing the night with a plea. His opponents have said a vote for the nontraditional Liberal Democrats could result in no party winning a majority, touching off a political and economic crisis. Clegg asked the nation to ignore those fears and vote for change.
"I hope you agree that something really exciting is beginning to happen," he said.