Gaffe-free show as leaders go head to head

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Indy Politics

Britain's first TV debate between potential Prime Ministers produced no classic clips of gaffes to be run again and again - but plenty of food for thought for viewers and voters.

Despite frantic behind-the-scenes spinning from each of the parties even as the 90-minute programme was being aired on ITV, Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron each turned in solid performances, without flooring their opponents.

Although occasional exchanges may have seemed harsh, they did not match the weekly routine cut and thrust of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister's Questions.

But across topics ranging from immigration, crime, the NHS, the ballooning national debt, to the Armed Forces, care for the elderly, education and MPs' expenses, the party leaders did genuinely cross swords and expose policy differences.

The Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg clearly benefited from being seen on an equal footing with Mr Brown and Mr Cameron and cleverly looked straight into the camera to deliver some of his best lines.

He also most often identified with the audience as the relative outsider, contrasting himself with "them", the other two would-be occupants of No 10. He took care to refer by name to the eight studio audience members who had posed questions, when he made his closing address.

The Prime Minister belied his gloomy image by raising the only laughs from the studio audience - forbidden by the rules agreed between the parties and broadcasters from applauding - when he thanked the Tories for putting up posters showing him smiling.

And the Conservative leader, who sometimes sounded tense despite his reputation as a great communicator, also made sure he hammered home his messages taking full advantage of his position as the first leader to take centre stage among the three podiums.

Mr Clegg would have benefited most from his unaccustomed exposure to a mass audience, but Tory and Labour aides will be simply relieved that their leaders left no hostages to fortune.

Now armies of communications experts and pollsters will examine audience reaction to every minute of the programme - and every gesture made by the leaders - in preperation for next Thursday's encounter.