British election: Nick Clegg wins UK's first presidential-style TV debates
Liberal Democrats' leader Nick Clegg bested Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Partly leader David Cameron in the first of three televised presidential-style debates ahead of the British election on May 6.
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Thursday’s debate, watched by almost 10 million Britons, was effectively the nation’s first real introduction to Clegg, a former journalist and European Commission official who speaks five languages. Although derided by some critics as a "Cameron clone," he has been credited with steering his party out of some disarray after becoming leader in 2007.
In a made-for-TV event that was fast-paced but largely free from memorable moments of the sort that have peppered the much longer history of such set-piece events in American politics, Clegg was judged to have produced one of the better ones.
"Have you noticed that the more they attack each other, the more they sound like one another?” he asked the studio audience and the country, as Brown and Cameron became tangled up yet again exchanging jibes.
Looking straight into the camera to deliver some of his best lines, he also most often identified with viewers as a relative outsider, contrasting himself with "them" – the two leaders of the larger parties standing at lecterns to his left.
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Britons were asked "Who won?" in four snap polls taken after the debate. Clegg was the victor in each poll with 43, 51, 58, and 37 percent respectively. Cameron and Brown came in roughly tied as the runners-up.
“I think he (Clegg) had a good debate,” Cameron told the BBC Friday. “But I must say I just enjoyed being able to talk to people at home, to address the questions that I think are the big questions at this election like immigration and the economy and crime.”
Brown, who had been prepped in advance by Michael Sheehan, a speech coach who worked on the Obama presidential campaign and specializes in “loosening up” politicians who lack charisma, meanwhile defied his dour image by making the audience laugh on a number of occasions.
He was continually on the offensive against his Tory rival, aggressively insisting: “It’s answer time, Mr. Cameron.” Results from focus groups suggested Brown scored best when attacking Conservative plans to cut back state spending sooner than the Labour government proposes to, but the reaction was often quite muted, indicating that voters are still not warming to him.
However, one line that was often on the lips of the Tory and Labour leaders was that of: “I agree with Nick.”
With the campaign now heading into its final stretch, observers expect that both of the larger parties will increasingly seek to identify common ground between their positions and that of the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Following Thursday night’s stand-off, which was devoted to domestic affairs, the next two debates will deal with foreign affairs and the economy.