Zapatero hangs on to narrow lead

Spain's leading contenders for prime minister in next month's elections clashed in a television debate that attracted a record audience but failed to affect the narrow lead held by the socialist incumbent Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero over his conservative rival Mariano Rajoy.

The corseted format, and huge stakes, meant that neither candidate diverged from his script to land a knockout blow. But neither made a fatal gaffe in covering the main issues of the flagging economy, immigration and Basque terrorism.

Monday night's televised debate, the first for 15 years, ahead of polling day on 9 March, struck sparks occasionally, when Mr Rajoy accused Mr Zapatero of lying about failed talks with Eta's Basque separatists, with his rival countering that the conservative government had taken Spain to war with Iraq on false pretences.

But neither proposed anything new, and neither displayed his most attractive qualities. Mr Zapatero, renowned for his engaging optimism, barely smiled for the entire two hours; and Mr Rajoy sniped at the record of four years of socialist rule but failed to storm the high ground of state power to demonstrate his authority to rule Spain.

Opinion polls after the confrontation showed that Mr Zapatero narrowly pipped Mr Rajoy as victor. But the five percentage point margin of error was greater than the difference between them, mirroring polls in recent weeks that provide scant prediction for the eventual winner.

All camps hoped that the audience – a record 13 million – would galvanise interest in a dull campaign, and particularly mobilise up to 20 per cent of undecided voters, likely to prove decisive. But the pro-Zapatero El Pais newspaper reckoned it was "a dialogue of the deaf", convincing only to those already committed.

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