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UK poll puts Cameron on top after final debate

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[April 30, 2010]  LONDON (AP) -- Conservative Party leader David Cameron gained momentum Friday as a new poll declared him the winner of the final TV debate, a victory that comes less than a week before Britain's national election.

Cameron's strong showing raised Conservative hopes of taking office in the May 6 election after 13 years as the main opposition to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labour party. The 43-year-old Tory chief even outshone Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, who was seen as winning the first two televised debates.

Brown was supposed to win the scrappy, combative showdown over Britain's economic morass, but the 59-year-old former Treasury chief's delivery fell flat before the cameras Thursday night. He also looked tired after a daylong political maelstrom in which he slammed a retired voter as being a bigot.

With polls still suggesting that no party may win the election outright, Cameron cautioned supporters not to be overconfident.

"I am just very focused on the next week, because this is still an election where we have to fight for every vote and every seat," he told the BBC radio.

Brown, struggling to keep from being the man who led Labour into defeat, vowed to keep fighting.

"The time for debates is finished, the time for decision has begun," he told supporters on a campaign stop in central England. "We will continue to fight for the future of this country until the very last second of this election campaign."

Overnight viewing figures showed that 8 million people watched Thursday's debate, just down from figures for the first debate two weeks ago and double the audience for the last showdown on April 22.

A Guardian/ICM poll published Friday found that 35 percent of the respondents chose Cameron as winning the debate, compared to 29 percent for Brown and 27 percent for Clegg.

The pollsters interviewed 510 adults by telephone -- they were randomly selected for a separate poll, and agreed to participate in a post-debate survey -- after Thursday night's broadcast. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

The first U.S.-styled debates have spurred an unexpected transformation in Britain's politics and shaped the election, one of the closest in decades.

Months ago, Cameron was favored as the clear winner but he was surprisingly eclipsed when Clegg, leader of the perennially third-placed Liberal Democrats, stole the first debate with his affable yet confident persona.

After Thursday's showdown, it seemed more likely no party would win a clear parliamentary majority with Clegg becoming a sought-after partner in a possible coalition.

Analysts, meanwhile, all but started drafting Brown's political obituary.

"It's the ultimate Shakespearean tragedy for Gordon Brown," said Frank Luntz, an American political consultant who has advised Republicans.

Britain faces mammoth economic troubles with the one of the largest deficits in Europe -- a 152.8 billion pound ($235.9 billion) sum racked up during the global financial crisis. No matter who wins, Britain is looking at the harshest cuts to public services since World War II.

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All three main parties have been reluctant to say what they plan to cut -- answers that could lose votes. The final debate did little to explain details of economic recovery plans, but Brown and Cameron repeatedly traded blows over tax and potential cuts to welfare.

All candidates tore into each other over immigration.

Some Britons blame an influx of 6 million foreigners since Brown's Labour took office in 1997 for worsening their plight. Immigrants have been accused of snatching jobs, pushing down wages and overwhelming welfare services.

Cameron wants a cap on immigration; Brown has championed controls through a points-based system; Clegg has suggested giving amnesty to illegal immigrants who come out of the shadows.

But it was the economy that dominated much of the debate.

"What you are hearing is desperate stuff from someone who's in a desperate state," Cameron said of Brown. In response, Brown accused his rival of plans that were "simply unfair and immoral," referring to Cameron's proposed cuts and tax plans.


Seizing the chance to ridicule both his rivals, Clegg pounced.

"Here they go again," quipped Clegg, recalling President Ronald Reagan's 1980 putdown of Jimmy Carter, when he famously said of his rival: "There you go again."

In two weeks since the first debate, Clegg emerged as a credible new contender to lead Britain -- shaking up the dominance of Labour and the Conservatives, the two major parties who have traded power since the 1930s.

Support for the Liberal Democrats has jumped dramatically -- to about 30 percent of potential votes in opinion polls, from 18 percent.

Clegg has been cagey about his preferred partner in a coalition government. He says his main demand is changing Britain's electoral system, which puts smaller parties at a disadvantage.

[Associated Press; By DANICA KIRKA]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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