Bristol: The leader of Britain`s third biggest political party faces a challenge on Thursday to cement his unexpected surge in support when he enters a televised election debate focussed on foreign policy.
Nick Clegg, head of the Liberal Democrats, transformed the election race last week when he emerged the surprise winner in the first live debate, giving his perennially third-ranking party a slim lead in some polls over governing Labour and the main opposition Conservatives.
While election system quirks mean Clegg`s lead is too small to sweep him to power, his sudden rise has rattled David Cameron`s Conservatives, who have seen a 20-point lead evaporate in the last year.
"There is only one issue that matters in this debate," Professor Mark Wickham-Jones of Bristol University said. "Can Clegg sustain the impetus, initiative and the momentum he established last week and keep Cameron on the backfoot?"
With Clegg`s rise dominating the campaign, many of the newspapers that traditionally support the Conservatives ran front page stories on Thursday critical of the Lib Dem leader.
His party issued a statement denying any wrongdoing over a Daily Telegraph report that party donors had paid money directly into his bank account, saying there had been nothing irregular about the arrangement.
The Daily Express blared `Clegg`s Crazy Immigration Policy` and the Daily Mail headlined `Clegg in Nazi Slur on Britain`.
In an article for the Guardian, Clegg hit back at what he called "ludicrous" warnings from the Conservatives that an inconclusive election result would damage Britain`s economic recovery and force it to seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The TV debate in the port city of Bristol will focus on foreign policy areas such as Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear weapons, reinvigorating the campaign after a week often dominated by the closure of British airspace due to a volcanic ash cloud.
Balance of power
If the centrist Clegg can again outpunch Cameron and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it will all but guarantee a hung Parliament, where no party wins overall control and the Liberal Democrats potentially hold the balance of power, analysts said.
"Whether or not we have a hung Parliament in Britain could depend on what happens on Thursday evening," Ben Page, chief executive of polling company Ipsos MORI, said.
It would be the first such outcome since 1974 and would fuel market worries that the new government will struggle to take the action needed to cut a record budget deficit.
Analysts said Clegg could expect a much harder fight in the second debate, with opponents scrutinising his policies more closely.
Clegg`s party was the only one of the main three to oppose the Iraq war. All would keep British troops in Afghanistan.
Brown, whose centre-left Labour has governed since 1997, is widely regarded as the weakest TV performer. However, his record of meeting heads of state and taking a lead in areas like the global economic crisis could give him a boost.
The centre-right Conservative leader, a former TV public relations executive who failed to shine in the first debate, will be under more pressure than Brown.
Cameron, 43, has let his poll lead shrink, lacks experience on the international stage and leads a party split over whether Britain should embrace Europe, analysts said.
"For Cameron, it`s a disaster," Wickham-Jones said. "The capacity for him to mess up is immense."