British voters fixed their eyes on television screens across the country for the first North American-style political debate Thursday — an event billed as an exciting prelude to one of the closest elections in years.
There were no real gaffes, no visible beads of sweat and no bloodletting.
Initial polls handed a surprising victory to the third-place Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg. The 43-year-old looked relaxed with his hand resting in his pocket. He also spoke confidently and passionately — often looking intently into the camera or to the audience — about topics ranging from immigration to greed in the banking industry.
Some bookmakers last week thought Clegg would be the worst performer in the first debate and the first to sweat.
One audience member in the debate described Clegg as the "Barack Obama of British politics."
The British prime ministerial debate, the first of three, was more subdued than U.S. presidential debates or even the vicious exchanges often seen in Parliament. An estimated 20 million tuned in to see the candidates inside a Manchester studio.
Swing votes will be crucial in this election. Polls suggest the governing Labour Party under Prime Minister Gordon Brown is closing in on the Conservatives. Many polls suggest because the election is so close that no party will win an outright majority in Parliament. If that happens, it will be the first time since 1974 that Britain has seen a minority government. A hung Parliament could prompt yet another election this year.
Plenty at stake
An estimated six million swing votes are at stake. Audience members in Thursday's debate asked questions about immigration, health care, pensioners, the economy and the armed forces.
But the question that seemed to resonate most with the audience and the candidates was over the expense scandal last year that exposed lawmakers of all three main political parties for submitting claims for everything from pornography to country estate chandeliers.
Many voters have said they have been disgusted by politics since the expense scandal that began unraveling as Britain sunk deeper into economic turmoil.
Clegg responded to the question about what parties would do to clean up politics with a zinger — calling for an overhaul of Britain's political system and accusing David Cameron's party of protecting Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft, a Belize-based billionaire who has funded the party for more than a decade.
Donations are under investigation by the Electoral Commission since allegations that the company was not eligible to give money because it was based abroad with no direct U.K. connection.
"There are still people who haven't taken full responsibility for some of the biggest abuses of the system," said Clegg.
Clegg's remarks also seemed pointed at Cameron's social class — the 43-year-old Cameron comes from a privileged family and is married to an aristocrat's daughter. Since he took the reigns of the Conservative Party, he has been trying to convince voters with the idea that the party once led by Margaret Thatcher is more compassionate and inclusive today.
In the beginning of the debates, however, Cameron tried to answer a question about what he would do about immigration with a story about how he was talking about the topic recently with "a black man." It wasn't clear whether the anecdote referred to a black immigrant or a black Briton.
Cameron looked sandwiched between Clegg and Brown, appearing to get less air time than his two rivals.
He often clashed with Clegg and Brown, saying the current law and order system wasn't working properly."
"We are not seeing enough police on the street, we are not catching enough burglars, we are not convicting enough and, when we do convict them, they are not getting long enough sentences," said Cameron.
Many commentators said the rules of the debates were too rigid to produce spontaneous debate.
"There wasn't any dynamite — they stuck to party lines and knew that it was more about not making a mistake," said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds. She said it was understandable that Clegg topped instant opinion polls.
"It's almost certainly because he's had exposure that he doesn't normally get," Honeyman said.
Analysts said Clegg looked like a nice guy, Brown the alpha male and Cameron the polished but anxious performer, according to Patrick O'Donnell, a social psychologist at the University of Glasgow.
"In terms of warmth, Clegg won by a mile. He was relaxed and made a lot of appeasement gestures to show he was on your side — the kind of person you would like to go for a pint with," O'Donnell said.