Clegg scents Labour blood in battle for second

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Nick Clegg declared yesterday that the Liberal Democrats were "going for gold" in the general election. The private reality is that they are aiming for silver next Thursday, banking that coming second behind the Tories in the popular vote would trigger lasting change to the political system.

Strategists insist the Liberal Democrats' surge to around 30 per cent in the polls after the first televised leaders' debate 16 days ago has been maintained. Where they were once preparing for a defensive strategy in the final week of the campaign, Mr Clegg will now go on the attack trying to squeeze the Labour vote.

His original schedule has been torn up as his campaign team hastily draws up plans to send him to Labour-held seats in the Midlands and the North. One claimed: "The Labour vote is soft, so we have expanded our ambitions significantly."

In an effort to counter accusations that a Liberal Democrat vote is wasted, the party's MPs will remorselessly repeat the message that the election is a "two-horse race" between them and the Tories. The party insists that Mr Clegg fought Mr Cameron to a draw in Thursday night's debate.

One aide said: "It was all about consolidating what he achieved in the first debate." Another added: "The way Nick performed in the debates has transformed politics."

Senior Liberal Democrats maintain Labour and Tory attacks on the party's immigration policies will have little impact in the sort of seats – many in multicultural cities – that the party is targeting.

They acknowledge, however, that speculation last week over how Mr Clegg would act in a hung parliament probably turned off voters. But they insist it was better to get the issue out of the way well before polling day.

The Liberal Democrats believe they have a potential secret weapon in the number of students and young adults who have registered to vote since the first debate.

Some will have already sent in postal votes; on the assumption that a majority will be leaning towards the Liberal Democrats, the party's task is to persuade the rest to turn out to vote next week.

It was no coincidence that Mr Clegg chose to address an open-air student rally at De Montfort University, Leicester, on the morning after the final debate. Dressed in a blue suit with an open-necked shirt, Mr Clegg told the largest crowd of his campaign: "I am so happy to be outside of the TV studios. We have a huge opportunity to change things for good."

He said his party was offering "real change, not fake change", and he appealed to his audience to throw out the "two old parties [which think] it's their birthright to govern your country". He added: "The question now is not: 'Do you want change?' but, 'What kind of change?'"

Hundreds gathered in a sunlit campus square to hear Mr Clegg, whose arrival was greeted with cheers and applause. Alex Monrose, a 20-year-old computing student, said: "It's very exciting, this almost rivals the Barack Obama campaign. His policies on tuition fees are very attractive but he's also the fresh face in politics and a lot of students think it's cool to support his campaign."

Art student William Newbury, 18, added: "The Lib Dems seem to be more of a youthful party with some new policies. People are bored of Gordon Brown and David Cameron and I think they feel Nick Clegg offers more of a fresh start."

However, not everything went completely to plan for the Clegg campaign team, with members of the university's Labour club holding up large "vote Labour" signs behind the Liberal Democrat as he spoke.

Later he was given a mixed reception as he arrived at the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. To a variety of cheers and boos, he said: "You are here for snooker, you are not here for politics, so I was trying to work out how I could mix the two.

"I was thinking what can I say? Brown being snookered, the reds are going down the hole. And then I realised the blue is worth more than the yellow, so I thought I would stop."

Five days to go

Reasons to be cheerful

The Liberal Democrats are still on course for a breakthrough. Clegg was the overall winner of the three televised debates and is now well known to the voters.

Reasons to be fearful

Support could be soft and the party could struggle to get young voters to the polls. Its stance on immigration and Europe could frighten off waverers.