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Weber Shandwick Public Affairs vice chairman Tara Hamilton-Miller says Clegg will have to be clever if he is to maintain his new-found popularity

This election, even after the second leader’s debate, is still impossible to call. This time last year Tories were wandering around talking of “no complacency”, but inwardly knowing it was pretty much in the bag. What has happened? Did David Cameron take his eye off the ball, why is Gordon Brown so popular when nobody likes him, it couldn’t actually be Nick Clegg..? Could it?

The past fortnight, so far low on “Prescott punches” or uncomfortable NHS confrontations, has been drama-light, but poll-heavy. No one could ever have predicted the extent to which Nick Clegg’s popularity was going to go berserk after the first ITV debate.

It is paramount that the Conservative party do not go on the attack, if they go for Clegg they could look bullying and the Lib Dem leader will look like the victim. Reaching equilibrium between coming out fighting hard but not bullying will be a challenge. Brown has an almost unhealthy dislike for Cameron and will be more than happy for the Tory leader to look like the bad guy and throw verbal punches at Clegg during the next debate on the BBC.

There has been little of the much-hyped US-style, viral media campaigns we thought would be dominant. If anything, the old-fashioned poster has been used to its best. Look at the controversy over the Cameron “We can’t go on like this” posters, the back-fired Labour “Ashes to Ashes” 1980s’ inspired campaign that made the Tory leader look like a lusted-after hero. Both parties have returned to old-school, photo-shop techniques rather than anything too fancy.

All three political parties were wise enough to realise that not everyone of voting age is online. And if they were, would not necessarily be able to access expensive, too-clever-by-half campaigns.

The final political debate will be important. Not just because of Clegg’s much-hyped poll success, but because of how Brown and Cameron play it. I am not convinced that absolutely everyone who saw the first debate thought Cameron’s performance was that bad or that Clegg was that amazing. Compare it to the Tory party leadership speeches when David Davis went up against David Cameron in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Cameron gave a no-notes, wandering-around speech and the press and broadcast hailed him as a genius. Was the other David’s speech that awful? It wasn’t. But the press had decided, it was considered that Davis had got a bit big for his boots and the boy David was a far more interesting prospect.

However, Clegg will have to be clever if he wants to repeat such success. His strongest card, which was to complain about his rivals squabbling, will not sustain him through the next couple of weeks. He has been very good at claiming his party is squeaky clean, very good at playing the morale high-horse; he will not get away with it forever.

The sudden popularity of Clegg has been the political equivalent of the volcanic eruption.  Cameron was quick to change his election broadcast following it, so was obviously worried. The Liberal Democrat policies on immigration, crime and faith schools do not play well with the electorate. Clegg’s opponents will be making sure they alert voters to this: a fight they were not necessarily prepared for.

This one is utterly confusing. There is everything to play for, watching how Brown and Cameron deal with the new Boy Wonder will be very interesting.

Tara Hamilton-Miller is vice chairman of Weber Shandwick's Public Affairs firm.

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