Brown fails to win back voters in last British debate

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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought to recover from a major gaffe by trumpeting his economic credentials in the final pre-election TV debate Thursday, but polls showed he failed to convince voters.

Two snap surveys after the debate revealed that David Cameron, the leader of the main opposition Conservatives, had won the debate just a week before the election.

Brown was fighting for his political life after he described a widowed voter as "bigoted" when she challenged him about immigration during a campaign visit on Wednesday, but he slumped to last in both polls.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, finished second in both surveys, suggesting that he has consolidated his party's surge in support as a result of his performance in the three TV debates.

Cameron repeatedly dismissed Brown's criticism of his party's policies on the economy and immigration as "tired" and "desperate" and said the Conservatives offered a fresh start after 13 years of Labour rule.

The prime minister needed a strong showing after a microphone picked up him up as he described 66-year-old Labour supporter Gillian Duffy as "a bigoted woman" as he angrily discussed their impromptu exchange with his aides.

He made no effort to hide his error as he opened the debate in Birmingham, central England, which focused on the economy.

"There is a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday I don't get all of it right," he said.

"But I do know how to run the economy, in good times and in bad. When the banks collapsed I took immediate action... to stop a recession becoming a depression.

"As a result of that, the country is now on the road to recovery."

Brown said the Conservatives' plans to slash public spending in a bid to reduce Britain's record public deficit risked tipping the country back into recession.

He highlighted the danger of Cameron and Clegg forming a coalition government if the election produced a hung parliament and tried to portray both men as novices.

"I don't like having to do this, but I have got to tell you that things are too important to be left to risky policies under these two people," he said.

"They are not ready for government, because they have not thought through their policies."

But in his closing statement, Cameron said: "If you vote Labour, you get more of the same. If you vote Liberal Democrat, it is uncertainty."

He promised that if voters opted for the Conservatives next Thursday "you can have a new fresh government making a clean break and taking our country in a new direction and bringing the change we need."

Cameron's message clearly struck a chord.

A survey by YouGov for The Sun newspaper put Cameron on 41 percent, against 32 percent for Clegg and just 25 percent for Brown.

A poll for ITV television news, conducted by ComRes, put Cameron on 35 percent, Clegg on 33 percent, and Brown on 26 percent.

ComRes also surveyed voter intentions, finding the Tories and Lib Dems were tied on 36 percent. Labour scored just 24 percent.

When the debate turned to immigration -- an issue largely avoided in the campaign until Brown's gaffe on Wednesday brought it to the surface -- both Cameron and Clegg avoided mentioning the Brown incident.

Instead the debate focused on the Lib Dem policy of earned citizenship for foreign nationals who have been in Britain for more than 10 years, which Labour and the Conservatives have branded an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

Brown said that Clegg's plan was wrong, while Clegg branded Cameron's proposal for an annual cap on immigration as dishonest because it did not include workers from the EU.

© 2010 AFP

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