Afunny thing happened on the way to Bristol, England, where I expected to dateline this report on the Thursday debate that marked the midway point in the British election campaign. A volcano with an unpronounceable name blew up in Iceland, and the trail of emissions that covered much of Europe canceled my flight and many, many others. So I ended up watching the debate at my desk in Washington rather than in a press room in southwest England.
It was still worth watching. The British took their sweet time in adopting the TV debate custom that has become standard in American presidential campaigns. But once they took the plunge on April 15, they found that they liked it.
When Gordon Brown, the prime minister who heads the ruling Labor Party, and his two challengers, David Cameron of the Conservatives and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, met for the second time in Bristol, none of them had a visible case of nerves.
Clegg was judged the winner of the first debate, confirming the rule that when TV debates include a third-party candidate and place him in seeming parity with the two major contenders, he is almost certain to benefit. That's what happened here with Ross Perot in 1992 (against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton), and Clegg was equally adept at exploiting the largest audience of his life.
The second debate was a much more even affair, with Brown, whose defeat was widely forecast in the months leading up to the May 6 election, appearing stronger and more seasoned than his younger rivals -- at least in the eyes of the reporters with whom I watched.
Brown, the longtime chancellor of the exchequer (treasury secretary) who finally nudged his partner/rival Tony Blair aside and became prime minister without having to face the voters, has the same large handicaps that George W. Bush faced. He is managing British forces in unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and presiding over an economy with uncomfortably high unemployment.
The prime minister did what incumbents always try to do: He became the voice of experience, telling his rivals at one point, "Get real!"
During the discussion of foreign policy, Brown accused Cameron of displaying a nationalistic Tory bias against the European Union and Clegg (who opposed sending British troops to Iraq) of being anti-Washington, while he (Brown) understood the importance of both sets of alliances. His goal was to make the younger men, who are quarreling over title to being "the real change agent," seem risky.
Cameron, who often triumphs in his weekly head-to-head encounters with Brown during the prime minister's question time in Parliament, was less effective in the three-way exchanges during this debate. He hired Anita Dunn, a veteran of the Barack Obama campaign, to coach him for this bout but perhaps did not realize that Obama also had not flourished in the multi-candidate debates early in the Democratic contest.
Cameron, who was skillful in modernizing the Conservative Party and who was long expected to win this election easily, has not figured out how to separate his message from Clegg's -- and reduce Clegg to an imposter's role.
Not surprisingly, it is the boyish-looking Clegg who appears to be having the best time. He reveled in the polls after the first debate that showed the contest becoming a close three-way race, and he seemed genuinely happy Thursday when discussing the possibility of a hung Parliament that would maximize his bargaining power.
Brown and Cameron, on the other hand, agreed that such a result would be a disaster for Britain. From opposite flanks, they came to the same conclusion: A clear popular verdict must precede the formation of a strong government.
But as Obama could testify after his struggles with a sagging economy, a distrustful, hostile electorate is not likely to give anyone this kind of mandate.