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We've gone back to a two horse race. But they are wearing different colours

David Cameron meets Police officers in Manchester

Image by conservativeparty via Flickr

The gentle recovery in the Tory vote since David Cameron's relatively poor performance in the first Leaders' Debate two weeks probably gained some important momentum tonight. We could yet see a Conservative government heading for Downing Street this time next week, albeit with a very small majority.

David Cameron made this his most assured contribution of the three debates and the instant polls seem to be confirming this. More assured it may have been, decisive it wasn't. There is still alot to play for over the next week, although I think we can finally start ruling out another term in office for Gordon Brown. He looked and sounded like a man with no future by the end.

In his final speech the Prime Minister did not offer a single positive reason why anyone should vote Labour. Instead, he used it to attack both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and, by implication, the British public for daring to contemplate change. At least both David Cameron and Nick Clegg tried to offer people some reasons for supporting them, although both their closing speeches were longer on rhetoric than substance.

So, where does this leave us after the three debates? Somewhere very different from where we started, that's where.

Just over two weeks ago this election was a fight between a stuttering Conservative Party with a decent poll lead and a surprisingly resilient Labour Party with the Liberal Democrats out in the third place where they have been for two (if not three) generations. It was, for most people, a two-horse race.
It is probably still a two-horse race, just with a dramatic change in the identity of one of the horses. First Nick Clegg came up on the rails, then he held off a challenge from Brown and now he has left him trailing back in the third place Clegg himself occupied just 15 short days ago. It is a fight between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for the largest share of the popular vote now. Cameron acknowledged that to-night by reserving his most ferocious attacks for Nick Clegg over immigration and the Euro. He knows that it is now the Liberal Democrats who are the main threat and who can prevent a Conservative victory. Gordon Brown seemed stuck in a past era, fighting the battles of yesterday and not adjusting well to the changed reality.

Clegg did well under pressure, getting none of the help he received two weeks ago from Gordon Brown who most definitely wasn't going to agree with Nick over anything. There were times when Clegg looked abit flustered and he occasionally struggled to move the debate on but, equally, Cameron didn't shine consistently through the 90 minutes.

The key question now is: have Labour got a comeback strategy? Is there anything they can do this weekend to rescue their rapidly crumbling campaign. If they haven't then we may see their vote drop to the low 20s which is much more likely to benefit the Liberal Democrats than the Tories.

The Tories will, however, be buoyed up by their leader's performance to-night and do have the advantage of having already built up a little momentum in their favour over the last week. That sort of momentum can be crucial at this stage in an election campaign. It may just be enough.
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