Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg celebrates a strong performance in the leaders' debate last night.
The extraordinary thing about Clegg's victory (that is, victory in the battle of 24-hour-news cycles) is that he did it despite high expectations. People tipped him to win - and he still won. In fact he exceeded those expectations, simply by seizing his moment, coming across as prepared, passionate, and for the most part straight-talking.
Neither GB or DC performed strongly or badly enough to disrupt this storyline. Each did enough to consolidate their support and their opposition. GB was pumped up, far more energetic and confident that might have been expected. He looked like he was enjoying himself. For the first half an hour or so there was a permanent smirk on his face that seemed to say, "Good God, this isn't going to be a disaster - it's rather fun! I'm good at it!". His confidence got the better of him at times and he slipped in a couple of zingers that died as they left his lips (I suspect he's a victim of bad advice here - his job is to look Prime Ministerial not to win a competition of the snarky wisecracks). He also used jargon way too much ("double-dip recession", "net inward migration" for gawd's sake). Worse, after the adrenalin of the first 45 minutes seeped away, he reverted to Great Leader mode, barely pausing to acknowledge each question before launching into scripted monologues. The smirk disappeared, the voice lost all variation, the eyes became blank. His team will hope that most floating voters would have tuned out by then anyway. (His whole premiership has suffered from this problem - GB is great when the adrenalin is shooting through his system but loses confidence and flair when he's grinding out the daily business).
DC was OK but he didn't shine. He seemed inhibited - perhaps aware that, as leader of this race, he had more to lose than anyone else. In fact you might judge his evening a success if you agree that his main task was to play defence, avoiding missteps rather than trying to score points. He gained significantly from being positioned in the centre of the stage. This made him look powerful, but also centrist - and if you don't believe that physical positionings can shape the way we think then read up on embodied cognition. Even below par he is still better than GB when it comes to making arguments in normal-sounding language. What he can't fix, unfortunately, is that baby-smooth skin, which under most other circumstances would be something to celebrate. I thought for a moment he'd sent his digital avatar to the debate. But then I realised - the secret of that poster is that it wasn't airbrushed one bit. He really does look like that.
Overall - that was much livelier than I expected. It was fast, punchy, there was back and forth. Actually made the American debates look very stilted and dull. Well done to the leaders and the debate organisers.
One more thing: ignore instant polls, and especially ignore the "worms" of Mori and so on. All this stuff is highly unreliable, fun maybe but irrelevant. If these debates have a real impact we won't be able to tell why or how for a few days. And judging by the American experience, the instant judgements - including this one - are often completely wrong.
(OK that is actually Roberto Carlos).
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