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How outsider threw UK election race wide open

By Robin Oakley, CNN Political Contributor
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A third choice for Britain?
  • Nick Clegg has gone from third to first in UK election opinion polls in a matter of days
  • Pollsters: Public are impressed by how he appears not to be part of the political eestablishment
  • Clegg is a Europhile who speaks five languages and was a lawmaker in Brussels
  • This week's leaders' debate, the second of three, will focus on foreign policy

London, England (CNN) -- By triumphing in the first ever British TV leaders' debate, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg has sent an electrical charge through the UK general election.

But while Britain seems to be undergoing a bout of Cleggmania, much of the rest of the world is puzzled by the emergence of a third party in a UK election they thought was dominated by two parties and has been left asking: "Nick Who?"

The Liberal Democrats' standing in opinion polls, which had begun already to advance as it often does thanks to the added media attention of a general election, has soared. Some polls have even put the Liberal Democrats in first place.

If present trends continue then a hung parliament-- with no party holding an overall majority of 326-plus seats in the 650-seat parliament -- is the most likely election outcome.

Video: The latest British election odds
Video: Britain's political faceoff: Who won?
Video: UK debate analysis: Part 1
Video: UK debate analysis: Part 2

So was Nick Clegg a one-show wonder -- or will the poll boost last through the next two TV leaders debates and up to the election contest on May 6?

Spin doctors in other parties have conceded that Clegg won that first debate. As a result they and their leaders will now be targeting the Third Man. But cutting him back may not be easy.

It was not just Clegg's confident, relaxed manner, his adept use of television or his comparatively youthful good looks which enabled him to make the political breakthrough against prime minister and Labour leader Gordon Brown and David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives.

In an age when the expenses scandals of the last parliament left electors deeply contemptuous of parliamentarians, Clegg, as the outsider, managed to convince the audience that he was one of them and not part of a cosy old political machine.

His most telling moment was when he scoffed at the other two, saying that when the Liberal Democrats had come up with plans for cleaning up parliament, Brown's Labour ranks had voted against them and Cameron's Conservatives hadn't bothered to turn up and vote.

In the age of the anti-politician, when the less you look and sound like one the better your changes of making contact with the audience, Clegg did that in spades. Had the audience for the TV debate been allowed to applaud, you can be sure they would have done so when Clegg declared of Brown and Cameron: "The more they attack each other the more they sound the same."

Although it is Brown's ruling Labour Party which Clegg's success has pushed into third position in the polls, it is Cameron's Conservatives who stand to lose the most if the Lib Dem advance continues. It will be almost impossible for the Conservatives to gain enough seats to form a majority without winning some of the constituencies which the Lib Dems are defending in the south-west of England.

The other danger for the Conservatives is that with the electorate looking for "something different" it is now Clegg and the Liberal Democrats -- and not the equally fresh-faced Cameron -- who represent the new.

Brown was painfully near the mark when he said scornfully of Cameron in the final Prime Minister's Question Time of the last parliament: "He was the future -- once."

So who is Nick Clegg and what should the outside world make of him?

Well, he is probably as well known to many European politicians beyond the UK as Cameron. Before becoming a member of parliament -- or lawmaker -- at Westminster, Clegg worked as a journalist and then in the European Commission for one-time vice president and Trade Commissioner Leon Britain. There then followed several years as a lawmaker at the European Parliament.

Nick Clegg, the outsider, convinced the audience that he was one of them and not part of a cosy political machine
--Robin Oakley

Clegg speaks five languages and comes from a cosmopolitan background. It is typical of the targeting he can now expect that one of the more slavishly pro-Conservative newspapers headlined an article after Clegg's debate success: "His wife is Spanish, his mother Dutch, his father half-Russian and his spin doctor German. Is there ANYTHING [sic] British about the Lib Dem leader?"

Only in Britain, you feel, could such a background be seen as grounds for attack. Tory-supporting tabloids are warning too that-- thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post voting system in Britain -- a vote for the Lib Dems could mean putting current prime minister Gordon Brown back in Downing Street.

The next TV debate is on foreign affairs. Will Clegg be able to maintain his difference there?

At the last election he could. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party who consistently opposed the war in Iraq. On Afghanistan there is virtual unity among the three main parties.

Although one opinion poll at the weekend found 77 per cent of those questioned supporting a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, all three major parties currently support the continuation of the war, though Clegg has been known to concede publicly that the question is now on the cusp.

Clegg and the Liberal Democrats support the non-replacement of the Trident missile system -- Britain's nuclear deterrent -- and can expect to come under attack from the Big Two for thus being ready, as they see it, to imperil Britain. Clegg can expect tough questioning there.

But it is Europe which may afford Cameron his chance of a comeback. While the opinion polls are finding significant support for some other items of Lib Dem policy on taxation (and Trident for that matter) they also record significant skepticism towards the UK enjoying closer ties with Europe.

Cameron, who has taken his party out of the European alliance of mainstream center-right parties, now leads the most Euroskeptic Conservative Party in history and might be able to play that to his advantage.

Cameron's problem though is that if he overdoes the Euroskepticism then he could provoke internal battles in an increasingly nervous Conservative Party. But if he sounds too wishy-washy on Europe then he could risk losing the votes of some hardline Conservatives to the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is to the right of the Tories.

The interesting thing will be to see how Clegg fares not calling a plague on both the other houses but sticking to his guns on a less than popular policy.

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