The Conservatives and Labour claimed today that they had halted Nick Clegg's bandwagon after the second leaders' debate failed to throw up a decisive result.
After a far more confrontational encounter than the first event a week ago, the two main parties said that they had exposed weaknesses in the Liberal Democrat leader's policy agenda.
But the Lib Dems hit back, saying that their rivals had failed to deliver the knockout blow against Mr Clegg that they were looking for and that they remained firmly in contention in the General Election race.
"I think his message of change is still resonating," Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey told BBC1's Breakfast.
"Both the Tories and Labour wanted to land a knockout blow on Nick because he has really changed this election around and they failed."
But after a series of bruising exchanges between the Lib Dem leader and Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the two large parties said they had shown up the weaknesses in his position.
"Nick Clegg is a performer but what we saw last night was substance emerging over style," Labour campaign co-ordinator Douglas Alexander told Sky News.
"Nick Clegg actually was pretty patchy on policy last night which I think augurs well for the Labour campaign in the days and weeks ahead."
For the Tories, shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: "I think that Nick Clegg was weak on immigration and weak on defence.
"That has started to come through in the debate so it was not the perceived success for him that it was last week."
Instant polls following the Sky News debate in Bristol suggested Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg were virtually neck-and-neck as viewers' choice for victor on the night, while Gordon Brown registered a much-improved performance.
After accusations that they gave Mr Clegg too easy a ride in the first TV debate last week and allowed him to give the Lib Dems an unprecedented poll boost, both the Labour and Tory leaders took the gloves off.
Mr Clegg came under sustained attack from both sides for his positions on Trident nuclear weapons and immigration, but fought back fiercely, accusing the "two old parties" of letting Britain down on the Iraq War.
The Lib Dem leader's poll ratings were well down on last week, when viewers rated him as dominating the debate by a wide margin. A Sky News poll of polls had the Tory and Lib Dem leaders tied with an average of 33% against the Prime Minister on 27%.
In a ComRes survey for ITV News, 36% of the 2,691 viewers questioned said they would vote Lib Dem on May 6, against 35% for Tories and 24% for Labour. If repeated on an even swing, this would produce a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party.
Mr Cameron, leaving his home in west London, insisted that it had been a good debate and that he was "not too unhappy" about the polls.
"I think people are now really getting the point that if you want real change the Conservatives can give a decisive change of leadership - wake up on May 7 and it's a new team, it's a new start, a clean break from the last 13 years," he said.
Furious Conservatives accused Mr Brown of lying when he claimed he had not authorised Labour leaflets which warn elderly people that Tories would scrap benefits like free bus travel, pension credits and winter fuel payments. Mr Cameron said the Prime Minister should be "ashamed" of trying to frighten pensioners.
This morning Tories released a poster depicting Mr Brown as Little Britain's Vicky Pollard under the slogan: "Did I lie about the dodgy leaflets? Yeah but no but yeah but..."
Mr Brown accused the other pair of "squabbling" over Europe. Mr Cameron dismissed the Lib Dem referendum plans as "a con", while Mr Clegg accused Tories of allying themselves with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes" in the European Parliament.
"These two guys remind me of my two young boys squabbling at bathtime," said Mr Brown.
"I'm afraid David is anti-European, Nick is anti-American and both are out of touch with reality."
The Prime Minister repeated his warning that Tory plans to cut £6 billion from state spending this year would risk a double-dip recession and attacked Mr Clegg over his opposition to a like-for-like replacement for Trident.
"David you are a risk to the economy," said the PM. "Nick, you are a risk ... to our security."
Mr Cameron said the Prime Minister's comments were a "slightly desperate" attempt to frighten voters.
"With the right leadership and the right values, with a clean break from these 13 years of failure, we can achieve anything if we all pull together," said the Tory leader.
Mr Clegg accused opponents of "spreading fear" in the hope of stopping change, but insisted: "We don't simply have to choose from the old choices of the past. We don't need to repeat the mistakes of the past.
"Don't let anyone tell you that this time it can't be different. It can."
The Labour and Tory leaders abandoned last week's efforts to win over the Lib Dem leader to their side, which saw Mr Brown repeatedly say "I agree with Nick".
Mr Brown repeatedly told Mr Clegg to "get real" over nuclear weapons, while Mr Cameron even said "I agree with Gordon" on the need to replace Trident.
As the Lib Dem leader repeated last week's attack on MPs from "the old parties" who "flipped" second home expense claims, Mr Cameron warned him not to place himself "on a pedestal".
Both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron accused the Lib Dems of planning an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, while Mr Clegg said that the other parties were "in denial" over the impossibility of deporting hundreds of thousands of migrants who have settled in the UK for a decade or more.
Acutely aware that he was outshone on presentation in last week's debate, Mr Brown began by warning voters that the General Election was not "a TV popularity contest" but a fight for Britain's future and jobs.
"If it is all about style and PR, count me out," said the Prime Minister. "If it is about the big decisions, if it is about judgment, if it is about delivering a better future for this country - I am your man."
Mr Cameron warned that a hung parliament would threaten interest rates, and told viewers: "If you vote Conservative you will get a new team on May 7 and we won't be stuck with what we have got now."
But Mr Clegg dismissed as "ludicrous" the idea that the economy would go into meltdown if the General Election failed to deliver an outright majority for one of the parties.
Leaving his hotel in Bristol this morning, Mr Clegg was asked whether it was all still to play for after last night's debate.
He replied: "Absolutely. I think yesterday's debate was a good one, it was an exciting one. I enjoyed it, and I think this General Election campaign is now shaping up to be one of the most exciting general election campaigns in a generation.
"It's wide open, anything could happen, and I think there are lots and lots of people in the country who want real change - that is what we offer and that is what I am going to be campaigning for every day right up until the last minute."
Mr Clegg rejected suggestions that Mr Cameron and Mr Brown's improved performances had helped him decide who to side with in the event of a hung Parliament.
Declaring that the debates meant "all bets are off", he added: "I'm just looking forward to campaigning for the big changes that I want to see happen in this country."
Shadow chancellor George Osborne said Mr Cameron had shown last night that he was ready to lead the country as prime minister.
And he rejected suggestions the Tory leader was not doing enough to achieve a breakthrough.
"We're pretty confident out there that we are winning over the public and we are going to win seats out there in the country," Mr Osborne told BBC News.
"We have two weeks to make a very simple argument to the British people, which is if you want real change, you have to have a change of leadership - and that will only come, is only guaranteed, if there is a Conservative government with a majority."
Mr Osborne again warned of the dangers of a hung parliament, saying it could mean "economic paralysis" because "no one's in control".Reuse content