London: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought to overcome a major gaffe by trumpeting his economic record in a final TV election debate, but polls suggested he was soundly beaten by main rival David Cameron.
Brown trailed Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, by more than 10 percent in an average of five instant surveys taken after the US-style televised showdown on Thursday, just a week before polling day.
Leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, came second a few points behind Cameron, lending further weight to the view that the vote could be close, producing a hung Parliament in which no party has overall control.
"Mr Clegg no longer looked like the new kid on the block, and Mr Brown was weighed down by the baggage of 13 years in office," said the rightwing newspaper the Daily Telegraph.
"It was Mr Cameron who looked the part."
The left-leaning Guardian also praised him: "Cameron was very assured, delivering his best debating performance when it counted most. He was optimistic, reassuring, steady."
The Tory leader repeatedly dismissed Brown's criticism of his party's policies on the economy and immigration as "tired" and "desperate" and said the Conservatives offered a fresh start after Labour's time in power.
At one point, he accused Labour of presiding over "13 years of economic failure in which inequality has got worse and deep poverty has got worse".
The outcome will be a major blow for embattled Brown. Commentators had predicted the last debate, with its focus on the economy, could have favoured the former finance minister.
But Wednesday's campaign trail slip-up left him fighting for his political life and distracted attention from the showdown.
Brown was picked up by a microphone describing 66-year-old Labour supporter Gillian Duffy as "a bigoted woman" in an angry discussion with aides after the widow challenged him on immigration.
He made no effort to hide his error as he opened the debate in Birmingham, central England, which focused on the economy.
"There is a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday (Wednesday) I don't get all of it right," he said.
"But I do know how to run the economy, in good times and in bad. When the banks collapsed I took immediate action... to stop a recession becoming a depression.”
"As a result of that, the country is now on the road to recovery."
Conservative plans to slash public spending in a bid to reduce Britain's record public deficit risked tipping the country back into recession, he argued.
And he highlighted the danger of Cameron and Clegg forming a coalition government if the election produced a hung Parliament, portraying both men as novices.
"I don't like having to do this, but I have got to tell you that things are too important to be left to risky policies under these two people," he said.
"They are not ready for government, because they have not thought through their policies."
Clegg, in his final statement, told viewers: "If you believe, like I do, that we can do things differently this time... don't let anyone tell you it can't happen.”
Cameron, in his closing statement, said: "If you vote Labour, you get more of the same. If you vote Liberal Democrat, it is uncertainty."
He promised that if voters opted for the Conservatives next Thursday "you can have a new, fresh government making a clean break and taking our country in a new direction and bringing the change we need."
If the polls are to be believed, it was Cameron's message that struck a chord.
An average of five surveys taken after the clash put Cameron on 37 percent, more than 10 points ahead of Brown on 25.6 percent. Clegg was second on 32 percent.
Brown was placed last in all the polls except one.
First Published: Friday, April 30, 2010, 13:42