David Cameron and Gordon Brown fought back in the General Election's second live televised debate as they tried desperately to halt Nick Clegg's bandwagon.
Amid highly personal attacks, both the Tory and Labour leaders turned their guns on the Liberal Democrat leader following his triumph in last week's first debate and his party's surge in the opinion polls.
Polls taken after last night's show suggested it was much closer than last week's contest.
A ComRes survey for ITV News showed that Mr Clegg retained top spot, with 33% of people saying he had won; Mr Cameron and Mr Brown scored 30% each. Asked how they would vote in the election, 36% said Liberal Democrat, 35% the Tories and 24% Labour. Mr Clegg was seen as the leader who gave the most honest answers last night (43%), with the Tory leader on 29% and the Prime Minister on 23%. However, a YouGov poll for The Sun made Mr Cameron the victor (36%), with Mr Clegg on 32% and Mr Brown on 29%.
Labour and Tory officials claimed that their party leader improved sharply on their performances last week. But neither landed a knock-out blow on Mr Clegg, whose allies said the election was now a “three-horse race”.
In his closing remarks, the Liberal Democrat leader said: “There are people spreading fear to stop the change you want. Something really exciting is beginning to happen, people are beginning to believe, they are beginning to hope we can do something different this time.”
Mr Clegg took centre stage in the studio and came under fire from left and right. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown spoke directly to the camera, adopting the tactic Mr Clegg used successfully last week. They tore into Liberal Democrat proposals to offer an amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 10 years and not broken the law. Mr Brown said the move would mean “more and more people coming into our country”, while Mr Cameron said amnesties elsewhere in Europe had backfired.
Mr Clegg accused them of “being in denial” about the problem of people “living in the shadows of our economy”.
Mr Brown, who agreed with Mr Clegg several times in last week's first debate, directed his fire at the two other leaders equally last night. He said Mr Cameron was “a risk to the economy” because of Tory plans to cut public spending this year, while Mr Clegg was “a risk to security” because his party opposed the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.
Some of the most lively exchanges were over MPs' expenses. Mr Cameron tried to stop the Lib Dems exploiting anger over the affair by saying MPs from all three main parties had misbehaved.
The 90-minute debate, screened on Sky News, was devoted mainly to foreign affairs.