Although Nick Clegg did not repeat his undisputed triumph in the leaders' first TV debate, his closest allies believe his strong showing on Thursday was in some ways a more remarkable achievement.
"We could easily have been a one-hit wonder, but we didn't suffer from second album syndrome," one senior Liberal Democrat strategist said yesterday. Not only had the novelty of the first debate worn off, but Tory-supporting newspapers had thrown a lot of mud in Mr Clegg's direction on the eve of the second TV contest.
Undaunted, his team dispatched some aides to rebut the allegations, while others kept a firm grip on the preparations for the leaders' battle. Mr Clegg believes the claims show that the establishment is rattled by the Liberal Democrats.
Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, said: "It was quite venomous and personal and I think reflected the fact that vested interests felt very threatened. But the important thing is that Nick Clegg himself and the party kept calm... People who funded the Conservative Party are clearly alarmed; they think now they backed the wrong horse."
Today Mr Clegg will allow himself a precious day off, his last before 6 May. He will spend it with his three sons, who finally returned yesterday from their grandmother's in Spain after being held up for more than a week by the volcanic ash crisis.
Yesterday the Liberal Democrat leader tried to turn the press campaign against him to his advantage. During a visit to Newcastle Aviation Academy, he said: "It was just an effortless game of pass the parcel between Labour and the Conservative Party so there are lots of people both in politics and parts of the press who don't like the fact that we are saying maybe we can do something different this time."
Urging people to put "hope before fear", Mr Clegg said: "I welcome scrutiny. There's a difference between scrutiny and abuse."
He added: "The debate last night showed very clearly that the general election campaign is now wide open. In my view this is now the most exciting and unpredictable election this country has had for a generation."
Mr Clegg may have survived the recent barrage of allegations against him but he knows there will be more to come. "We've got our tin hats on," said one aide.
Two down, one to go
Unfazed under fire. Rapport with audience. Articulates broader vision for participation in Europe. Articulates determination to make a hung parliament work. Strongest conclusion: "Something exciting is beginning to happen... Don't let anyone tell you it can't be different."
Needs convincing rebuttal to claims he will endanger national security. "Nutters" is not statesmanlike.
Tips for the future
His points need to be tightened up. Brown and Cameron will try to demolish his economic credentials.Reuse content