Gonzalez wins by default in lacklustre clash: 'The Decisive Debate' between Spain's Prime Minister and his election rival was anything but, reports Phil Davison in Madrid

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The Independent Online
SPAIN'S private Tele-5 channel had billed it as 'The Decisive Debate', but an informal poll suggested that most Spanish voters found the second and last of two 'live' studio encounters between the Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and his chief opposition rival quite indecisive, not to mention 'far too long' and 'boring in the extreme'.

Mr Gonzalez, who is behind the conservative People's Party (PP) in the opinion polls, was widely reckoned to have got the edge on the PP leader, Jose Maria Aznar, in the debate on Monday night, but neither did much to win over the estimated five million undecided voters, 17 per cent of the electorate, who could swing the race either way.

Mr Gonzalez's 'victory' in the debate, which ran for two hours and 40 minutes into yesterday morning, was largely by default, as Mr Aznar failed to hammer home the advantage gained in the first debate a week earlier. It was the fact that Mr Gonzalez came out fighting, casting aside his heavily criticised defensive stance of the previous week, that won him the narrow points verdict, rather than the content of his remarks.

Desperate to outdo the rival private channel Antena 3, which carried the first debate, Tele-5 indulged in an orgy of self-gratification in which the medium dwarfed the message. Hundreds of personalities were invited to follow the debate from an ante-room, although there was no audience in the studio itself. We were told what the two men had had for breakfast, given an explanation of why make-up was necessary, constantly reminded of the 'human and technical effort' that had gone into keeping several cameras on two faces for so long.

Both big regional nationalist parties, the Basques and the Catalans, which could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and were highly critical of the US-style debate, claimed they would gain votes in their regions as a result of what they considered the two leaders' lack of clear policies.

In fact, the two men's policies are remarkably similar. As in the first debate, Mr Gonzalez never once mentioned the word 'socialist' or the name of his party. He has become increasingly embarrassed by his party's left and has gradually become centrist, occasionally even right-of-centre in outlook in recent years. He promised a 'social pact' with workers and employers.

Mr Aznar topped that by proposing a 'shock plan' to slash the 21 per cent jobless figure. Mr Gonzalez again admitted his failings and effectively promised a total clean-out of his government, with 'new men, new women, independents'. Mr Aznar said it was too late, since 'you have lost the confidence of the nation and your government has run out of ideas'.

Unlike the first round, Mr Gonzalez was animated, occasionally aggressive, and looked his opponent in the eye. Mr Aznar lost points by sniggering and by the repetitive use of the term 'Senor Gonzalez' with a highly sarcastic intonation. His critics note that, although it is hard to tell because of his thick black moustache, he seems able to speak without moving his upper lip.

The Prime Minister wasted no time in pinning his opponent down on remarks that Mr Aznar had made while Mr Gonzalez was locked in tough negotiations in Edinburgh over the EC cohesion fund. He had called Mr Gonzalez 'a beggar' who had gone cap-in-hand to squeeze money out of the wealthier countries.

In the first debate, Mr Aznar skirted the issue and accused the Prime Minister of 'lacking in the truth'. This time Mr Gonzalez produced a telex message and press cuttings carrying the quote and declared: 'You were wrong to make those statements, which were later used against our country.' It was a point likely to strike a patriotic chord with many viewers.

(Photograph omitted)