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Was the Leaders' Debate an election game-changer?

Nick Clegg addresses the Conference Rally in B...

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As I write this the first wave of post-debate polls have just been published and they all give the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg a huge margin of victory in the first of the three leaders' debates. Does that make to-night a game-changer?
There will be endless analysis, reaction, rebuttal and spin over the next few days. Some of it will cause people to re-assess what they have just seen but it is hard to believe that we haven't just witnessed a key moment in this campaign, maybe in a key moment in British politics. The debate has made the Liberal Democrats and their leader serious contenders. I believe it will finally dispell alot of the fear of a hung Parliament as people will say they could, at the very least, trust Nick Clegg to hold his own with the other two leaders. Indeed, most people will come away from the debate thinking that he could do much more than that should he find himself involved in the negotiations over who forms the next government.
So, Nick Clegg was clearly the big winner of what was round 1 of a three round contest. David Cameron was the big loser. Some polls had him a distant third, others had him ahead of Brown although that must still be seen as a disaster for him and the Conservatives as he went into this as the favourite. He fell a long way in just 90 minutes.
For Gordon Brown this was a similar outcome that experienced by Alistair Darling in the Chancellors' debate - he did better than expected and came across as a decent politician of substance. That will help him. What won't help him is that he too often sounded like he should have been in the Chancellors' debate, especially in his opening and closing statements.
Cameron's weak performance is all the more worrying for the Conservatives because the first two questions  - on immigration and crime - were on subjects that are usually very good for the Conservatives. He should have got off to a flyer but, instead, seemed to stall on the starting grid, never really recovering.
Of course, for next week's debate on foreign affairs the expectations on Clegg will be very high and he will be the one that will have most to lose. Europe will figure strongly and that, in theory at least, should be a strong issue for the Tories. But Clegg took Cameron on over immigration so expect him to do the same on Europe.
For Labour next week will be tricky. Do they carrying on appearing to agree with the Liberal Democrats whenever possible (perhaps looking towards the discussions they will have to have in a hung Parliament) or do they start to attack them? It didn't go as badly for them tonight as some feared so they may be reluctant to change tack. If one consequence of Clegg's personal triumph is a slide in Conservative support overall then Labour might settle for that, at least for another week.
This may have been a game-changer but there is still a long way - and two more debates - to go. Also, support for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties is notoriously volatile so any sudden leaps in their support in the opinion polls over the next few days have to be treated fairly cautiously. That said, I know which party HQ I would rather be walking into tomorrow morning.
 
  
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