David Cameron wrests back (some) control in second UK debate

A hung parliament after May 6 elections looked more possible after the second UK debate on foreign policy and domestic issues. One snap poll named Conservative candidate David Cameron the winner, while another gave the nod to Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. Prime Minister Brown struggled.

Stefan Rousseau/Reuters
Conservative Party leader David Cameron (l.) talks while Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (r.) look on at the second of Britain's leadership election debates in Bristol, southwest England, Thursday.

The first snap polls following Thursday night’s debate between the three political candidates in Britain showed Conservative leader David Cameron sounding more confident and relaxed than he did at last week's debate, wresting some control of the conversation back from Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

But the Lib Dems’ star clearly was still rising, as Mr. Clegg – standing between Mr. Cameron and Prime Minister Gordon Brown – put up a strong fight in response to attacks from both sides. He was pronounced the victor in one poll, and came in second, after Cameron,in another.

A dour-looking Mr. Brown used his opening remarks to remind viewers that this was not a popularity contest. He consistently tried to bring attention to his experience, saying at one point that the two others reminded him of “my two young boys squabbling at bath time."

He came in last in one poll and tied for second in the other.

The YouGov poll for The Sun showed 36 percent of viewers thought Cameron won the debate, with 32 percent in Clegg’s camp and 29 percent leaning toward Brown. A ComRes poll for ITV put Clegg in the lead with 32 percent, as the two other contenders tied at 30 percent.

Afghanistan, climate change, and pensions

The 90-minute televised debate in Bristol, which focused on foreign policy in the first half and domestic matters in the second, saw the leaders looking right into the cameras – a strategy pioneered last week by Clegg – as they appealing directly to viewers with their positions on everything from Afghanistan to climate change, nuclear deterrence and pensions for the elderly.

It was an animated and at times aggressive debate. At one point Brown accused Cameron of being “anti-European,” and at another called Clegg "anti-American." Clegg, meanwhile, attacked Cameron's European allies, describing them as "nutters,” “anti-Semites,” and “homophobes,” and Cameron turned on Brown, saying it was "disgraceful" of the prime minister to try to frighten people about what the Conservatives would do in power.

Asked about whether a hung parliament, with cooperation between “talent” from all parties, might not be best for Britain, Cameron responded in the negative, saying it would impede government’s ability to be decisive. Clegg, obviously, said he was for the idea.

After winning the first debate last week, expectations had been raised for Clegg, explains Andrew Russell, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University. “Clegg withstood the pressure and did a great job, which means Britain is all that much closer to getting a hung parliament.”

Down side of sudden popularity

But, being the flavor of the moment does have its down side, as Clegg was finding out.

With his surge in the polls has come a surge in scrutiny and attack by both the other candidates – as evidenced in the debate – as well as by the media, if judged by the front pages of many newspapers here today.

The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story Thursday alleging that in 2006, Clegg had money – up to £250 a month – put into his private account by three party donors, and used that money for the likes of paying his mortgage and shopping. Clegg has denied the money was used for personal spending and said that it was to help fund a member of the staff in his parliamentary office.

A Daily Mail headline shouted: "Clegg in Nazi slur on UK," and, dredging up old comments made by the candidate in an interview in 2002, accused the Lib Dem leader of "an astonishing attack on our national pride by saying that British people have a "more insidious cross to bear" than Germany over World War II.

“I must be the only politician who has gone from being [compared to] Churchill to being a Nazi in under a week,” Clegg quipped in response.

Meanwhile, perhaps in a nod to American-style influences in the campaign, Clegg seems to have handily won another competition – a competition on “hotness” run by the site BeautifulPeople.com. There, visitors were asked to rate pictures of Clegg, Cameron, and Brown and vote on whether the leaders were “hot or not.”

While none of the leaders scored the required 50 percent of "yes" votes required to be considered truly a winner, Clegg got closest, scoring 23 percent positive votes. In a surprise development, Brown came second with 19 percent, with the dashing Cameron languishing in third place with just 13 percent.

Related stories:

Liberal Democrat Clegg becomes man to watch in UK race
David Cameron releases Tory manifesto ahead of UK general election
Michelle Obama and the Americanization of the Britain general election

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