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UK general election: Britons poised to make history

An embattled yet experienced incumbent faces an untested but charismatic Conservative. Also in the mix is a surprise upstart contender.

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And although lawmakers from all three parties were involved, the backlash was most severe for Britain's old guard, the Conservatives and Labour. Labour's popularity, slipping since Tony Blair's landslide victory in 1997, took a nose-dive after the unpopular Brown took the reins.

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Then came the surprise success of Clegg, the son of an investment banker who called for an overhaul of British politics during the debates. His impressive performance thwarted Cameron and added to nagging worries over the extent to which the Tory leader actually overhauled the stodgy Conservatives.

The 43-year-old Cameron has also been hampered by his own elite background. Eton-educated and married to an aristocrat's daughter, many question whether he can relate to an electorate that has endured 1.3 million layoffs and tens of thousands of foreclosures over the past year and a half.

As Europe grapples with Greece's financial crisis, global markets are waiting impatiently for Britain's election outcome - anxious to know how quickly work can begin to cut the country's record 153 billion-pound ($236 billion) deficit.

A Conservative majority would likely lead to a stock market rally and a boost for the British pound because the Tories favor more aggressive, and immediate, cuts than Labour to Britain's deficit. But even a Labour majority could see a rally because it would erase market uncertainty.

The impact of a hung Parliament is far less certain.

Some analysts suggest fears about delayed action on the deficit could weigh on Britain's currency and stocks. Others say the markets have already factored that in and believe rapid action on the deficit is possible - as long as a new government is formed quickly.

If the Liberal Democrats are able to push through their main goal - overhauling Britain's centuries-old electoral system so it is more proportionate - the changes would favor center-left parties, and potentially shut Cameron's Conservatives out of power for decades.

This British election has already been historical. The country's first-ever television debates offered Clegg rare equal billing with Brown and Cameron, and he shone - combining his telegenic, friendly manner with sharp attacks on his rivals and the country's electoral system.

The Liberal Democrats - who have traditionally won about 20 percent of the vote since the party formed in a merger in 1988 - have held on to that unlikely surge although polls still put the Tories ahead but without a majority.

The same system that Clegg wants to overhaul, in which the number of districts won - not the popular vote - determines who runs the country, could produce the most bizarre election scenario. Labour could win fewer seats than the Conservatives, but still stay in power.

That's because convention holds that in the event of a hung Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II should offer the sitting prime minister the first chance to try to form a government - even if his party wins fewer seats than the opposition.

In such a scenario, Clegg could find himself with the balance of power. The backing of his expected bloc of about 80 seats in a coalition would give Cameron or Brown the ability to form a government and pass laws.

Without a firm mandate, the task for Britain's next leader of pushing through painful public spending cuts as well as a likely tax increase will be far more difficult.

"There's still a lot of head-scratching going around, and that might not change for weeks," says Steven Fielding, a political analyst from Nottingham University.

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Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report.