Liberal Democrat Clegg becomes man to watch in UK race

The UK race has gone from static to electric, says one pundit, as Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg surges after last week's debate. His sudden popularity has thrown open a race that was once seen as the Conservative Party's to lose.

By , Correspondent

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    UK race: Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg speaks to students at the Wiltshire College, an agricultural college near Chippenham in western England, Wednesday.
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A week ago, he was barely a contender. Then there was a debate. Nick Clegg came out swinging, and the whole election shifted.

Forget about Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party. Tear your attention away for a moment from dashing Conservative leader David Cameron and his popular wife, Samantha. The candidate to watch these days is Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, and the potential kingmaker of the 2010 elections.

“The LibDems may not win on May 6,” says Robert Worcester, founder of the London-based polling and research organization MORI, "but Nick Clegg has turned the this election from static to electric.”

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Clegg was the surprise winner in last Thursday’s debate – presenting himself as the real agent of change in Britain, and offering an alternative to all those fed up with Labour but unconvinced by the Conservatives.

A ComRes poll for ITV News showed 43 percent of those polled right after the debate thought Clegg won – nearly double Mr. Cameron's score of 26 percent and Mr. Brown's 20 percent.

Compared to Obama, Blair – even Churchill

Since then, the young politician, who is still serving his first term in parliament, has been compared to Barack Obama, Tony Blair, and even Winston Churchill. And new polls show Clegg and the LibDems have overtaken Labour as the second most-popular party in an election only 16 days away.

According to the Guardian/ICM poll released Tuesday, Cameron remains in the lead with 33 percent, but with Clegg fast on his heels with 30 percent, and Brown and the Labour behind with 28 percent.

As a consequence, Cameron and Brown are taking a break from attacking each other and are scrambling instead to show that Clegg’s policies are unknown, untested, or both. Both point to polling indicating most of Clegg’s new supporters like his energy and attitude as well as the fact that he simply is not Cameron or Brown – but are less clear on his positions on the likes of immigration, European integration, or taxes.

“Nick Clegg's a nice chap and he gave a good performance in one TV debate, but government's not an episode of Britain's Got Talent,” Liam Fox, the Conservatives’ shadow defense secretary, said in a BBC interview. “We need to ask questions of Liberal Democrat policy.”

The media are scrutinizing Clegg more closely as well. On Tuesday, Clegg’s bid to portray himself as the clean man of the people was dealt a blow when he was challenged at a press conference over his expenses claims, which included £2,600 ($4,000) for a remodeled kitchen in his second home to paper napkins worth £1.50.

So, will the momentum for Clegg and his center-left social liberal political party continue?

“Probably not,” assesses Mr. Worcester. “Voters are now listening to Clegg and it's very possible he will increase the number of seats for the LibDems … but momentum will move on.”

Yet LibDem excitement over their rise in the polls remains high. “Even if Clegg does not become prime minister, we all know this game has changed,” states Ed Fordham, the LibDem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, who sent a text message to Clegg after the debate Thursday night noting that “I always said you were a winner– even on Wednesday.”

It looks increasingly likely that Britain will end up with a hung parliament, an outcome that has happened here only once since World War II – something that would give the reenergized Clegg a very significant role to play in forming the next government.

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