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The Clegg effect: Will it last another week?

Britain's political leaders clash at their second televised debate.

London pub-goers watch as Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg take part in the second of Britain's leadership election debates in Bristol on April 22, 2010. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — If Britain’s coming election was once seen as a toss-up between two contenders, all bets were off this week after the country’s first-ever televised leadership debate delivered a seismic jolt to the country’s political landscape.

While Labour incumbent Gordon Brown and his hitherto main rival David Cameron of the Conservative Party may have held their own in the first debate seven days ago, victory in that event — according to mercurial opinion polls — belonged to a man few people abroad and just as few at home had heard of.

Such was the size of the collective swoon that greeted Nick Clegg, the head of the centrist Liberal Democrat party, that newspapers declared it “Cleggmania.” The one-time outsider was likened to both Barack Obama and that most hallowed of British statesmen: Winston Churchill.

If sustainable, Clegg’s elevation to a genuine prospect for prime minister in the May 6 vote could prove truly historic. The last Liberal to hold the top job in Britain was David Lloyd George, a libidinous Welshman who led Britain to war against Germany in 1914 before seeing his party’s power usurped by the upstart Labour Party a decade later.

A slew of bad headlines ahead of tonight’s debate may have slightly dented Clegg’s popularity, but Cameron was taking no chances on the campaign trail this week. He appropriated his new rival’s claim to be a force for change and — ironically for a candidate representing the venerable Conservative party — painted himself as anti-establishment.

As the debate, which focused on foreign policy, got underway, it was clear Cameron had also been scrutinizing Clegg’s performance a week earlier, adopting his much-praised trick of addressing viewers down the barrel of the camera, even as he resorted to awkward anecdotes of the kind that earned him derision in the first showdown.

Brown, who spent the past week trying to underline his prime ministerial credentials by deploying naval vessels to rescue volcano-stranded British travelers, chose a different tack, portaying himself as a solid politician who struggles in the glare of a TV popularity contest. Head high, he declared: “If it’s all about style and PR, count me out.”