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Leadership debates galvanize Britain

Britain's first experiment with televised electoral debates came to a rousing finish tonight. The third of the leader debates took place in the Great Hall of Birmingham University and the primary focus was the economy.

As I write, the candidates' wives, best friends and dozens of local pundits are spinning their views about who the winner was — even though that's not really important. The odds are that with one week until polling day the debate probably didn't change too many voters' minds, but did serve to consolidate the amazing breakthrough of the Liberal Democrats from historical irrelevance to probable kingmakers after the vote is counted.

All polls are now pointing to a hung Parliament: No party will win a majority of seats and the Liberal Democrats' leader Nick Clegg, whose debating skills have been the story of this election, once again demonstrated to the British electorate why they have nothing to fear about a coalition government in which he features prominently.

For an American observer these have been remarkable performances to watch with tonight's being the best of all. This election is the first time the party leaders have debated "American" style, as the British say. There was a freshness to the format. The gaffe-fearing stiffness, the overdrilled answers, the sheer lack of spontaneity that now marks American presidential debates was missing. The three leaders, Labour's Gordon Brown, Conservative David Cameron and Clegg, free-wheeled, ducked and dived, attacked each other and avoided giving tough answers with great flair.

They didn't hide behind soundbites and their differences were absolutely clear. The first question was about cutting spending to begin to attack Britain's massive deficit — currently 70 percent of GDP. Brown warned of taking government money out of the economy too soon and warned of a double-dip recession. Cameron called for immediate cuts on the size of government.

It took all of 10 minutes for things to go tribal. Cameron charged after welfare cheats and claimed big business backs him. Brown supported continued tax credits for middle-class families while raising taxes on top earners. The Liberal Democrats were the first party to warn about the terrifying banking practices going on in the City, London's financial district, and Clegg was the first of the debaters to apply the rhetorical whip to bankers.

When the question of taxes came up, the candidates got down to a level of serious detail that you won't find in an American debate. The bankers came in for a lot more punishment in this section.

For the record, Cameron was the first to invoke the name of U.S. President Barack Obama. It shows how far the British Conservative Party has drifted from America's Republicans that its leader was trying to dust himself down with a little of Obama's stardust.

It almost seems a shame that a week has to go by before the May 6 vote. The debates have galvanized the country. What was shaping up as a dull event with low turnout has completely captured Britons' imaginations. Between now and polling day the focus will be on the various scenarios for dealing with a result in which no party has an outright majority of seats. Currently the three parties are separated by between 5 and 7 percentage points depending on which opinion poll you read.

What will happen next Thursday is any one's guess — and that is what makes this election so exciting.

More on the U.K. elections:

Who would replace Gordon Brown?

The Clegg effect: Will it last another week?

Britain's first TV debate

Immigration debate roils Britain

Analysis: Results of Britain's election up in the air