- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

LONDON (AP) — Conservative Party leader David Cameron gained momentum Friday as Britain moved into the final phase of its election campaign, using an unflappable performance in the final television debate to galvanize supporters.

The 43-year-old Tory chief brimmed with the relaxed confidence that has characterized his exchanges in Parliament, flattening Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the subject the Labor leader has long considered his forte — the economy. The 59-year-old Mr. Brown seemed drawn and tired, still reeling from the furor that resulted when he inadvertently broadcast remarks describing a retired woman as a bigot for her views on immigration.

Political wunderkind Nick Clegg, whose stellar performance in the first of the three debates catapulted his Liberal Democrats into contention, held his own and remained the wild card in the most volatile election in decades. Mr. Clegg came out swinging Friday, declaring that the race was now between his party — usually the third place finisher — and the Tories.

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With polls still suggesting that no party may win the election outright, Mr. Cameron cautioned supporters not to be overconfident.

“I am just very focused on the next week, because this is still an election where we have to fight for every vote and every seat,” he told the BBC radio.

Mr. Brown pledged to fight on.

“The time for debates is finished, the time for decision has begun,” he told supporters on a campaign stop in central England. “We will continue to fight for the future of this country until the very last second of this election campaign.”

Overnight viewing figures showed that 8 million people watched Thursday’s debate, just down from figures for the first debate two weeks ago and double the audience for the last showdown on April 22. The debates have set the campaign alight, offering the element of unpredictability in a country where the race is usually a showdown between the two heavyweights — Labor and the Conservatives.

The once-heavily-favored Mr. Cameron was surprisingly eclipsed after the first debate, when Mr. Clegg rocketed into contention with his affable and straightforward style. It seemed more likely no party would win a clear parliamentary majority, with Mr. Clegg becoming a sought-after partner in a possible coalition.

Mr. Clegg could prevent a Conservative win, said Andrew Gamble, the head of the department of politics at Cambridge University.

“They should be winning this election by a mile. The fact that they’re not is deeply troubling for the Conservatives,” he said. “Clegg is spoiling the party for them.”

Britain faces mammoth economic troubles with the one of the largest deficits in Europe — a 152.8 billion pound ($235.9 billion) sum racked up during the global financial crisis. No matter who wins, Britain is looking at the harshest cuts to public services since World War II.

All three main parties have been reluctant to say what they plan to cut — answers that could lose votes. The final debate did little to explain details of economic recovery plans, but Brown and Cameron repeatedly traded blows over tax and potential cuts to welfare.

All candidates tore into each other over immigration.

Some Britons blame an influx of 6 million foreigners since Mr. Brown’s Labor took office in 1997 for worsening their plight. Immigrants have been accused of snatching jobs, pushing down wages and overwhelming welfare services.

Mr. Cameron wants a cap on immigration; Mr. Brown has championed controls through a points-based system; Mr. Clegg has suggested giving amnesty to illegal immigrants who come out of the shadows.

But it was the economy that dominated much of the debate.

“What you are hearing is desperate stuff from someone who’s in a desperate state,” Mr. Cameron said of Mr. Brown. In response, Mr. Brown accused his rival of plans that were “simply unfair and immoral,” referring to Cameron’s proposed cuts and tax plans.

Seizing the chance to ridicule both his rivals, Mr. Clegg pounced.

“Here they go again,” quipped Mr. Clegg, recalling President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 putdown of Jimmy Carter, when he famously said of his rival: “There you go again.”

Mr. Clegg has been cagey about his preferred partner in a coalition government. He says his main demand is changing Britain’s electoral system — a change which would make it possible for his party to play a role in government.

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