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The UK election looms -- but who agrees with Nick?

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
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Who is Nick Clegg?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has enjoyed an enhanced profile this election
  • Clegg was elected to the Commons in 2005 and was party leader by the end of 2007
  • LibDems back proportional representation, which would give them more seats in parliament
  • The closeness of the general election could see Clegg take a kingmaker role

London, England (CNN) -- For years his party has been an also-ran in British elections, but a scandal and a debate have put Nick Clegg in a position no Liberal Democrat party leader has held in recent memory: potential kingmaker.

Clegg, a 43-year-old who speaks five languages and has been a British lawmaker for only five years, is riding high in the polls on the back of confident performances in the first ever debates between party leaders during a UK election.

Perhaps unprepared for how well Clegg would play on TV or how skillfully he would exploit voter anger at the two big parties, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron took his side often in the first debate, in mid-April.

"I agree with Nick," they said repeatedly, and by the next morning, the phrase was everywhere: on posters and t-shirts, in newspapers, online, on television.

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But who, exactly, is Nick?

Even in the southwest of England -- a Liberal Democrat stronghold -- many people don't seem to know.

CNN anchor Max Foster hit the campaign trail with Clegg there just days after his star-making TV debate performance, and found few people knew he was in town, or even who he was.

But Foster found Clegg was much the same person off-screen that he was in front of the cameras.

"I remember he came up to us once and we all pulled out our notepads and he said: 'Well you can interrogate me if you want but I just came to say hello,'" said Will Pavia, who covers Clegg for The Times newspaper. "He's quite quick-witted. There's the occasional awkward joke but mostly he comes over quite well -- charming, like he is on camera."

Clegg has an impressively varied pedigree -- a Dutch mother, a half-Russian father, a Spanish wife -- which he cites as the reason he speaks so many languages. (French and English too.)

He studied at Cambridge, the University of Minnesota and the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, then dabbled in journalism before ending up -- perhaps inevitably -- working for the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.

From there, his rise was quick. He was elected a member of the European Parliament and served a five-year term before deciding that the job was not compatible with having a young family, according to his official biography on his party's website. Clegg and his wife have three young sons.

He was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal Democrat in 2005, and by the end of 2007 he was leader of the party.

It was an auspicious time to become leader. Within 18 months, a scandal over lawmakers' expenses swept parliament, leaving voters angry and disgusted at their elected representatives.

When the election campaign kicked off, Clegg, as the outsider, ran against the cozy old political machine.

In the first debate against Brown and Cameron, he scoffed at them, 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.

Suddenly, it seemed as if a party that had fewer than one in ten lawmakers in the outgoing parliament might overtake Labour, who had more than half -- at least in the popular vote.

The old politics, where you are told from upon high that you can only have a choice of two, is over
--Nick Clegg
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Quirks in the voting system make it very unlikely the Liberal Democrats will actually overtake either of the big parties in the number of lawmakers they send to Westminster, but the surge in support for the smaller party might deny the Conservatives, who are leading in the polls, a majority.

That could mean Cameron or Brown needs Clegg's support to form a government -- making him kingmaker.

Clegg briefly indicated he couldn't support Brown, and Cameron said he wouldn't form an alliance with Clegg, but of course what's said in the heat of the campaign may be forgotten when power beckons.

Whatever happens, Clegg says a big change is brewing.

"I think what's happening is an acceleration of something that's been brewing for some time now, which is a collapse in old style duopoly of British politics," Clegg said of the bump.

That's the single most enduring feature of Lib Dem election manifestos: switching to proportional representation, which would probably give them a much larger number of seats in parliament.

"It's very difficult to predict how it's going to unfold from now, but I am sure we have got to the point that you can't turn the clock back anymore," Clegg said. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle. The old politics where you are told from upon high that you can only have a choice of two is over."

Clegg may be wrong. Labour has hinted it might consider proportional representation at some point down the road. The Conservatives flatly oppose it.

So if the Liberal Democrats' key constitutional reform is become reality, the question on May 6 may very well be: Just how many voters agree with Nick?

CNN anchor Max Foster and CNN political contributor Robin Oakley contributed to this report.

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