BIRMINGHAM, England — Britain's final TV election debate Thursday saw Prime Minister Gordon Brown scrap for his political future in the most combative showdown of the campaign, trading sharp exchanges with his two chief rivals a day after an embarrassing campaign gaffe.
Brown, who has been freefalling in the opinion polls for weeks, wasted no time ahead of the May 6 election. He threw a joke in his opening remarks in hopes of neutralizing Wednesday's blunder, in which he was caught calling a retired Labor voter a "bigoted woman" after she badgered him on immigration and he forgot to remove his microphone.
But his delivery fell flat. Analysts said Brown's performance failed to wow voters.
"There is a lot to this job, and as you saw yesterday, I don't get all of it right," Brown said. "But I do know how to run the economy — in good times and in bad."
The first U.S.-styled debates have spurred an unexpected transformation in Britain's politics and shaped the election, one of the closest in decades. Months ago, the Conservatives' David Cameron was favored as the clear winner, but he was eclipsed after the first domestic debate when Nick Clegg, leader of the perennially third-placed Liberal Democrats, stole the show.
Clegg remained a contender in a potential coalition government if no party wins a majority, while analysts all but started writing Brown's political obituary.
Cameron, the 43-year-old who studied economics and won an endorsement from the Economist, appeared to come out on top in Thursday's debate, but analysts said polls would be a better judge after voters digested coverage of the debates.
Victoria Honeyman, an analyst at the University of Leeds, also handed a victory to Cameron.
"Cameron did really well, Clegg was reasonable — not impressive, but reasonable," said Honeyman. "And Gordon Brown, in what was supposed to be his debate — in his back yard of the economy — didn't do well at all."