London: Britain is holding its first US-styled televised political debates — and bookies are taking bets on who will sweat or stumble first.
The three showdowns begin Thursday, adding even more suspense to the country's most unpredictable election in decades.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party, Conservative leader David Cameron and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats will take audience questions on issues such as crime and health care. The following debates on April 22 and April 29 will focus on foreign policy issues and the economy, the most significant of all issues in the May 6 election.
While British governing parties have been reluctant to agree to such prime-time spectacles, debates have been near regular fixtures in US presidential elections since 1960, when front-runner Richard Nixon, pale after a hospital stay, gave a lackluster performance against the tanned and affable John F Kennedy.
Nixon rallied in following debates but the damage was done. Some 70 million people saw him sweat. They also saw his razor stubble after he reportedly refused full makeup. Afterward, more than half of all US voters said the debates had influenced their opinion.
"I could see the same situation where David Cameron is the Kennedy figure and Gordon Brown is the Nixon figure," said Frank Luntz, a US Republican political consultant. "Cameron is from the next generation where Brown is old enough to be his father. That dynamic usually doesn't look good on television, especially when people want a change."
Brown, 59, is perhaps the most desperate of the three candidates, but pollsters say expectations are so low for him that even a modest performance could be seen as a win.
Although Brown is praised for his intellect, he often appears clumsy on screen — he uses the same phrases, speaks in a monotone and frequently looks disheveled or tired.
Analysts say the big risk for Brown is stepping too far out of character — he was skewered for a recent YouTube appearance in which he was smiling wildly.
"The expectations of debates play a large role," said Scott Keeter with the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC "In the Nixon-Kennedy debates, Nixon was considered to be a real political powerhouse while Kennedy was not viewed in the same way as he is now. Because the expectations were on Nixon doing really well, Kennedy's performance was seen as a real victory."
In this race, however, expectations are high for the 43-year-old Cameron — favored by bookmakers to win the first debate with 5/6 odds. Brown is at 7/4 odds while Clegg has 5/2.
Articulate, privileged and married to an aristocrat's daughter, Cameron has been trying to convince voters that Margaret Thatcher's party cares about the poor and disadvantaged. Often compared to the charismatic Tony Blair, who brought the Labour Party back to power 13 years ago, Cameron is often seen cycling or doing Web cams of his family life.
But it's unclear whether his folksy "Just call me Dave" campaign or his pregnant wife's visits to soup kitchens have convinced a dubious electorate.
Luntz said it won't be enough for Cameron to just look or sound good — he'll need to back it up with substance.
"The key for Brown beating Cameron will be putting him on the defensive," he said.
Swing votes will be crucial in this election. Polls suggest it could be the first time since 1974 that no UK party wins an outright majority in Parliament. Britain's peculiar voting system still favors Labour even though the Conservatives have a slight lead in the polls.
The Conservatives need to win a bigger share of the vote than Labour to earn an overall majority this time — a major swing of more than 6 percent, according to some polls.
British voters are still fuming over an expenses scandal that tarred all three major parties last year — lawmakers were found making claims on everything from porn to chandeliers while the country plunged into recession.
A Populus poll on Thursday for the Times newspaper showed the Labour Party closing in on the Conservatives. The poll gave the Conservatives 36 percent — a drop of 3 percentage points — to Labour's 33 percent. The Liberal Democrats had 21 percent. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.
A ComRes poll for a newspaper and television channel also showed a slight drop for the Conservatives. That poll put Cameron's party at 36 percent, down 1 percentage point, with Labour up 1 percentage point to 31. Its margin of error was 3 percentage points.
Clegg, 43, is the least experienced politician and considered the hothead of the three. But just by participating, the third-place Liberal Democrats have achieved some parity with the two larger parties and can promote their socially liberal, fiscally conservative platform.
Bookmakers say Clegg is the most likely do badly in the debates. PaddyPower put Clegg at 11/10 for the first to visibly sweat. Cameron had 6/4 odds and Brown 3/1.
"This is a new thing in Britain — people will watch hoping that something might go wrong like it does in the soap operas," said Steven Fielding of Nottingham University.
Some 76 guidelines govern the live 90-minute debates, a painstaking format to which all three parties finally agreed.
A panel of journalists chose questions for the leaders that will be asked directly by members of a 200-strong studio audience selected by pollster ICM. The audience must stay quiet. Leaders won't know the questions in advance and won't be able to confront one another directly.
It's not entirely clear what will happen if any of the rules are broken.
"The rules are so rigid that it will be very hard for them to go back and forth with each other," said Luntz. "Because of the structure, I'm not even sure how many people will watch all the way through."
The British media pressed hard to even get the parties to agree to the debates. Brown was the last holdout, much like other British incumbents. The Conservatives' Thatcher famously told Labour rival Neil Kinnock in 1987 that "such a debate would generate more hot air than light."
Still, televised presidential debates in the US — which have occurred in all but a handful of elections since 1960 — draw very high ratings. Nielsen says the Barack Obama-John McCain debates in 2008 drew between 52 million and 63 million viewers.
A comparable rating in Britain would be about 10 million viewers — a standard achieved now by only the most popular reality TV shows or soap operas.
"A British audience will still tend to focus on a good quip," Luntz said. "You can have a bad performance for 88 minutes but a single line or phrase could affect the outcome."
First Published: Thursday, April 15, 2010, 11:10