By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 30, 2010; A10
LONDON -- A day after committing a major gaffe on the campaign trail, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown needed a golden moment against his two rivals Thursday night during the last of three prime-time election debates. But as the lights went down in Birmingham, Brown appeared to be settling for bronze.
The three televised debates -- a first this year -- have reshaped the closest prime ministerial race in decades here, ushering in a new kind of political theater. Over the past three weeks, the exposure has led to a surge in the polls for the perennially third-place Liberal Democrats after two stellar performances by their fresh-faced leader, Nick Clegg.
But in Thursday's debate -- which focused on the single biggest issue in Britain, the economy -- front-runner David Cameron of the Conservative Party dominated. He delivered a line of tough love, holding out the specter of a financially troubled Greece as he vowed to cut Britain's massive budget gap and force welfare recipients back to work. Three snap polls released after the debates showed voters declaring Cameron the winner.
Clegg, nevertheless, was still seen as besting Brown. Clegg's frequent one-on-one tangles with Cameron -- leaving the prime minister out -- underscored the possibility of the Labor Party suffering its worst defeat in decades in next Thursday's vote.
The final debate carried a hefty dose of schadenfreude, coming as it did after Brown's colossal gaffe on the campaign trail Wednesday. He called a widow and lifelong Labor voter who gave him an earful on immigration "a bigoted woman" in off-camera remarks, which were caught on tape. In the ensuing media frenzy, the Telegraph newspaper dubbed it Brown's "Day of Disaster."
Saying he was "mortified" by his behavior, Brown offered the woman a 40-minute apology. He topped that off Thursday night, during his opening remarks at Birmingham University, with an acknowledgment of his self-described "disaster."
"There is a lot to this job, and as you saw yesterday, I don't always get it right," Brown said. "But I do know how to run the economy, in good times and bad."
The most animated exchange of the night came after an audience member suggested that politicians in general are out of touch with ordinary Britons on immigration, now emerging as a dominant issue in the race.
Brown, as in all the debates, was the most aggressive of the three candidates. He took particular issue with Cameron's assertions that the Conservatives have modernized, referring to them four times as the "same old" elitist, out-of-touch party.
Brown wrapped up the night with a statement summarizing the unanticipated effect of the debates, which appear to have upended Britain's two-party system.
"These debates," he said, "are the answer to those people who say that politics does not matter."