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The second leaders' debate was much closer than the first and for that reason I imagine all three parties will be taking some satisfaction from the performance of their leaders. I wouldn't be surprised if the polls end up making it a score draw. If they do, that means that the big loser, once again, is David Cameron. If he and the Conservatives cannot pull away and consistently register on or around 40% they are not going to get the overall majority that has seemed a sure fire certainty for the last three years. I thought Cameron was appealing strongly to the core Tory vote on the big issues that came up like immigration and Europe but doing very little to reach out to the middle ground he needs if he is going to win. I wouldn't have thought that he has to worry about the core vote in this election. Surely, his job is to reach out well beyond that and he showed little sign of doing so in tonight's debate.
He gave one slightly bizarre answer when 84 year old Grace wanted to know what the parties would do for pensioners on the basic pension when he hold her that she would have to wait until 2016 at the earliest for any improvements. He did, however, rattle Gordon Brown on the pensions issue by attacking him for some false claims about Tory policies he alleged were appearing in Labour leaflets.
To Gordon Brown then. He did better than last week and, again, probably exceeded expectations but it was a very uneven performance. There was none of the "I agree with Nick" statements of the previous week, in fact quite the opposite as he kept attacking him for not wanting to replace Trident and for the Liberal Democrats' immigration policies. On both these issues, Brown found himself very close to Cameron although he stopped short of uttering what would have been the fatal words "I agree with David". Brown sounded good on pensions but you have to remember that you are looking at the man who in a decade as Chancellor did untold damage to our pensions system. He was genuinely effective on areas such as gay rights and religious tolerance than could easily have been captured by Clegg if he had slipped up.
For Nick Clegg it was probably job done. He was very unlikely to run away with it as before but he performed very soundly under alot more pressure and scored some good points. He stuck to his guns on the potentially unpopular - for his party - issues of Europe and immigration and came out with the best line of the night when dismissing Brown's demand to deport illegal immigrants: "We are talking about 900,000 people and you don't even know where they live". At that point the audience couldn't help themselves and slipped out of their straightjackets and laughed.
All Clegg had to do this week was hold his own and not wilt under the pressure. Even when Adam Boulton tried to force the Daily Telegraph's smear campaign against him into the debate, Clegg confidently swatted it away. Just by keeping up with the others he has ensured that the election remains firmly a three horse race.
This was potentially the most difficult debate of the three for Clegg because the popular assumptions are that Europe is loathed, immigrants are barely tolerated and people demand strong defence, all issues that the Liberal Democrats differ with popular opinion on. Clegg may not have scored heavily on these issues but neither was he hurt over them.
I thought the most disappointing aspect of the evening was Sky's coverage. They kept an annoying and irrelevant ticker running all the way through, chose poor, ill-focussed questions, allowed Boulton to intervene with a question to just one candidate that hadn't been asked and then came up with an instant poll for the Sun that suggested - surprise, surprise - Cameron had won. I look forward to the professionalism of the BBC next week.
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