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Blair's opponents

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

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Assessing the election challengers to British PM Tony Blair.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- If Tony Blair is re-elected people will know what they are getting. As President George Bush's closest ally he has become well known on the international stage.

At home his supporters say he is one of the great communicators of the age and a man prepared to take tough decisions, as with Iraq. His detractors deride Blair as a gimmicky media manipulator, the king of the photo-opportunity.

But what of his opponents? Michael Howard, leader of the Conservatives, is a veteran with a reputation as a hard-liner in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Howard has won respect facing up to the prime minister in the British parliament.

Analysts say he has authority. Says Financial Times columnist and biographer Philip Stephens: "Howard is a credible, serious politician. He has the experience, the presence which allows people to think 'Yes, we could have this person as our prime minister'."

But he's not exactly a sympathetic figure...

Adds Stephens: "He is a politician who is angry, annoyed. He is good at attacking Labour. He doesn't come across as somebody in tune with the concerns of ordinary voters".

So lately Howard has been softening the image, recently bringing his wife, children and grandchildren on the stage with him.

For Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats there's a different problem. A talent for light comedy and an ease with the media once had him labeled as "Chat Show Charlie."

Says Peter Kellner, Chairman of the polling organization Yougov: "He comes across like a decent, self-deprecating, witty, humorous human being. People like that.

"Charles Kennedy's task, challenge is to persuade people that he really is a serious player."

So, of these would-be tenants of Downing Street, Howard has restored the Conservatives' self-confidence and proved an effective attack dog.

Kennedy has achieved good results in parliamentary by-elections, thanks partly to the Liberal Democrats' opposing the war in Iraq.

And he may have one useful card with women voters. His wife Sarah has given birth to a baby, Donald James, during the campaign.


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