LONDON — Nick Clegg proved he wasn't a one-hit wonder in Britain's second election debate Thursday, holding his own against Labor's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Conservatives' David Cameron over thorny issues such as Afghanistan, the Catholic sex abuse scandal and the special relationship with the United States.
An initial poll gave Clegg a slight edge in the debate, but it appeared to be close to a three-way tie. Still, Clegg managed to keep some of his political stardust — respondents said the Liberal Democrats' 43-year-old leader seemed the most honest.
Clegg shook up the race last week, emerging as a clear winner after giving a smooth and confident performance in Britain's first U.S.-styled election debate and boosting his party's profile.
It was the closest Britain has come to the famous 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate — every grimace and blemish were seen in high-definition television format. The candidates' performances make the razor-close May 6 election even harder to predict.
Polls suggest that no party will win an outright majority. That situation could turn the Liberal Democrats into a kingmaker, bartering with both Labor and the Conservative parties for things they want — namely, electoral changes that could weaken Britain's traditional two-party system.
Brown was on the attack for most of the debate, ridiculing Clegg and Cameron — both 16 years his junior — and at one point comparing them to his children. He also lashed out at Clegg, accusing him of being anti-American, and going after Cameron for being "anti-European."
"These two guys remind me of my two young boys squabbling at bathtime, squabbling about referendums on the EU when what we need is jobs and growth and recovery," said Brown, 59. "I'm afraid David is anti-European, Nick is anti-American and both are out of touch with reality."
Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats voted against the U.S.-led Iraq war and who has questioned British "subservience" to U.S. interests, denied he was anti-American but said Britain should re-evaluate how it deals with its trans-Atlantic ally.
"It's an immensely important special relationship, but it shouldn't be a one-way street. We shouldn't always do what our American friends tell us to do."
Clegg is unlikely to become prime minister because Britain's electoral system is not proportional, so parties must win the majority of districts, not the popular vote. This puts smaller and newer parties at a disadvantage. Most core voters still either vote Conservative or Labor.